Bucking the Sarge
Bucking the Sarge

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Annotation: Deeply involved in his cold and manipulative mother's shady business dealings, fourteen-year-old Luther dreams of going to college and becoming a philosopher.
Catalog Number: #10115
Format: Perma-Bound Edition
All Formats: Search
Publisher: Random House
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition Date: 2006
Pages: 259 pages
Availability: Available
ISBN: Publisher: 0-440-41331-1 Perma-Bound: 0-605-55751-9
ISBN 13: Publisher: 978-0-440-41331-8 Perma-Bound: 978-0-605-55751-2
Dewey: Fic
LCCN: 2004006445
Dimensions: 18 cm.
Language: English
Horn Book
Curtis's latest novel is set in Flint, Michigan; his protagonist, Luther T. Farrell, is fifteen going on thirty. Luther must deal with the moral bankruptcy of his mother, an unscrupulous loan shark, slumlord, and scam artist known as the Sarge. Luther is a vintage Curtis hero, with a keen eye for human inconsistencies, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a genuine inner sweetness.
Kirkus Reviews
Luther's hard-driving mother, "Sarge," has built personal life and financial empire (slum housing, group homes, loan sharking business) through belief in two things: herself and money. <p>Luther's hard-driving mother, "Sarge," has built personal life and financial empire (slum housing, group homes, loan sharking business) through belief in two things: herself and money. Luther is exploited no less than her "clients." At 13, he got a forged driver's license and the responsibility for running The Happy Neighbor Group Home for Men. Years later, Luther's life is a grind of responsibility at the home and striving at school. When Luther's science fair project--on the dangers of lead paint--promises to cost Sarge (whose apartments are painted with it) money and jail time, she ruthlessly cuts him adrift. In a conclusion that avoids contrivance through his comic use of organizational list-making, Luther, who is thoroughly decent despite everything, shrewdly gets all he's owed and declares his independence. In Curtis's hands, this is darkly funny as he deftly paints his Runyonesque cast of characters as broadly as the side of the Buick Riviera driven by Darnell, Sarge's "rent-a-thug." Told in Luther's jivey, colloquial voice, enriched by Curtis's cast of large-hearted survivors, and enlivened by his coruscating style, this is another winner--or, as Luther might say, a "three-peat." <i>(Fiction. 10-16)</i></p>
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-Luther's mother, "the Sarge," runs an empire of Flint, MI, slums and halfway houses, and has a loan-sharking business. At age 15, Luther manages one of her halfway houses, drives the residents around in a van with an illegal license, and readies the homes of evicted tenants for the Sarge's next desperate victims. In exchange, she puts his earnings in a college fund, threatens him into submission, and primes him to take over the business. All Luther wants to do is win the school science fair, think deep thoughts, find some action for the vintage condom in his wallet, and do something honest with his life. Curtis tells the teen's story with his usual combination of goofy humor, tongue-in-cheek corniness, and honest emotion. Accordingly, Luther narrates the absurd, embarrassing details of his life with both adult sensitivity and teen crassness. The dialogue between Luther and Sparky, his "womb to tomb" best friend, is at turns hilarious and touching. The Sarge herself is so convincingly sharp-tongued, shrewd, and despicable that she's the novel's juiciest character. The plot unfolds slowly at first, and teens may lose patience with Luther's tendency to feel sorry for himself. However, once his confidence begins to build, the story keeps a quickening pace with his character arc. His final revenge on the Sarge is so deftly constructed and the novel's resolution so satisfying that it makes up for the occasional lag in the lead-up. Any teen who's ever wanted to stick it to the man (or woman) will love this story.-Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Starred Review for Publishers Weekly

Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy; The Watsons Go to Birmingham) invites readers to visit present-day Flint, Mich., and to meet one of its wealthiest 15-year-olds, Luther T. Farrell. From the outside, narrator Luther's life might seem enviable. He drives a luxury vehicle, using a "for-real, honest-to-God, straight from the Secretary of State phony driver's license" that says he's 18. His education fund is worth $92,510 and he's a top student on his way to becoming the winner of the Whittier Middle School science fair for the third consecutive year. The down side: Luther is constantly kept under the thumb of his hyperstrict mother, "the Sarge," a woman who has lied, cheated and extorted her way to "own[ing] half the ghetto." When not in school, Luther is put in charge of doing the Sarge's dirty work, cleaning out the rat-infested apartments of evicted tenants and taking care of the elderly residents at the adult rehabilitation center owned by his mother. Happiness and independence seem out of Luther's reach until he devises a way to "buck" the Sarge the same way she has "bucked" the system. The hero's sense of humor and his interest in philosophy bring levity to Luther's bleak trappings. Featuring characters so lively they seem to jump off the page and a gratifying resolution in which all characters get their comeuppance, this vibrant modern-day battle between greed and morality proves that there is more than one way to come out on top. Ages 10-up. (Sept.)

Starred Review ALA Booklist
*Starred Review* Curtis moves from the historical fiction of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 (1995) and his Newbery Medal-winner Bud, Not Buddy (1999) to the contemporary scene in this hilarious, anguished novel set in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. The narrator is smart, desperate 15-year-old Luther (not Loser, as some call him) Farrell, who speaks with wit, wisdom, and heartbreaking realism about family, work, school, friends, and enemies. He hates his vicious mom (the Sarge), who has made herself rich by milking the system, including evicting poor families from slum housing. Luther's job is to care for four men in Sarge's Adult Rehab Center, another scam. At school he wants to win the science fair medal again, even if his rival is the girl he has loved since kindergarten. Bits of philosophy from Luther's various mentors, who range from Socrates to Judge Judy, blend with the comedy and sorrow. There are some real surprises in plot and character, including a substitute parent Luther finds in an unexpected place and a science project that does change the world. His schemes of revenge and escape are barely credible, but the farce and the failure tell the truth in this gripping story.
Word Count: 66,051
Reading Level: 5.8
Interest Level: 7-12
Accelerated Reader: reading level: 5.8 / points: 10.0 / quiz: 80633 / grade: Middle Grades
Reading Counts!: reading level:7.1 / points:16.0 / quiz:Q35548
Lexile: 1000L
“Just a minute, fellas. Hello?”
“Luther?” It was Sparky. He sounded like he’d just run five miles. “Have you looked outside, bruh?” I could hear the wind howling behind him.
“Yeah, where you at?”
“I’m on the phone outside Seven-Eleven. It’s like a hurricane out here!”
“Then why don’t you get inside? Are you coming over?” The 7-Eleven was only a couple of blocks away.
Sparky said, “Uh-uh. I need you to meet me behind Taco Bell.”
“You need what?”
“Seriously! This is my big chance, baby! Before this night is over I’m going to be calling 1-800-SUE-EM-ALL. I finally got someone to sic the big D.O.G. on.” He started barking into the phone.
“Sparky, what are you talking about?”
“I’ma put me a suit in on Taco Bell!”
“Oh, you’re gonna do that old I-found-a-rat-in-my-burrito trick?”
Sparky said, “Please, they peeped out that scam a long time ago, they even do autopsies on the rat if you claim that happened. I got the bomb, baby! But I’m gonna need your help.”
“Uh-uh, Luther, this is for real. I walked by Taco Bell and all them red tiles are lifting up off the roof and knocking the mess out of everything in the parking lot! One went clean through someone’s windshield!”
“Sounds dangerous.”
“Which is why you gotta get down here.”
I said, “Why would I come out on a night like this to watch some roofing tiles crashing into cars . . .” Then I understood. “Now I get it, you want a witness that you got hit by one of those tiles, right?”
“Something like that, but I need a little more.”
“I’m listening.”
“I really do need to get hit, and you’re the only one I can trust to do it right.”
“Aw, no. That ain’t happening!”
“Come on, Luther, I already got one of the tiles set to do it. All you gotta do is kinda tap me in the head, then walk me into Taco Bell and have them call an ambulance.”
“Don’t worry, bruh, you know when I get paid I’ma break a little something off for you.”
“You must be kidding.”
“Luther, don’t make me beg.”
“I can’t do it, Sparky. Besides, you’re cutting into my science fair project time. Plus I gotta put the Crew to bed, that’s going to take at least half an hour.”
Sparky said, “If that’s the best you can do, half an hour then, behind the Taco Bell.”
He said, “I just hope the wind hasn’t died down by then, it’ll be on you if it has. Your half hour could be costing us a whole lotta benjamins, my brother.”
“I’ll see you in half an hour, but this better be quick, I’ma just whack you in the head, then I gotta bounce.”

Sparky didn’t have to worry, by the time I’d settled everyone down and started walking to Taco Bell the wind had even picked up some.
The stop sign on the corner was twisting back and forth in the wind, sounding like a rocket made out of tin cans and duct tape getting ready to blast off. The wind was hot in a way that made you want to close your eyes and tilt your head back and breathe real deep. Or maybe even howl.
Something from the roof of Taco Bell somersaulted through the air, then smashed into the parking lot. Sparky popped out from behind a Dumpster and ran toward me with a tile in his hand.
“Sparky,” I yelled, “this is insane, man, let’s just go home.”
Sparky shook his head and said, “Come on, bruh, hurry up, this ain’t real easy for me, you know.”
I took the reddish-brown clay roofing tile from him. I was surprised how heavy it was. He leaned toward me, closed his eyes tight and showed his teeth.
“Come on, Luther, quit torturing me,” he whined, keeping his teeth clenched. “Do it!”
I shook my head and closed my eyes. I raised the tile about shoulder high, brought it down on his head and felt a little shimmy run up my arm. Sparky was still standing with his eyes squinched shut.
He looked at me. “That’s it?” He brought his hand up, rubbed at the spot where I’d hit him and said, “Man, you gotta be kidding, don’t forget this thing’s supposed to have blowed off a roof, you really gotta knock the snot outta me, bruh.”
I dropped the tile. “This ain’t me, you gotta get someone else.”
Sparky looked hurt. “What? You supposed to be my boy, who else can I trust?”
He picked the tile back up and reached it toward me again. “Remember what we used to say, ‘We’ll have each other’s backs from womb to tomb, you’ll be my boy from birth to earth.’”
What could I say? He was right, we had said that. I took the tile again. It must’ve weighed ten pounds.
The wind was really starting to get serious. The stop sign had stopped shaking and was now whistling and going back and forth like one of those piano metronome things. Two more tiles jumped off the roof and exploded in the parking lot.
“All right, fool, bend your head over.”
I closed my eyes, raised the tile over my head and let it drop on Sparky’s skull. Again my arm shimmied. When I opened my eyes Sparky was looking at me the way you’d look at a kid who brought home all Ds on his report card.
He said, “Man, all you’re doing is giving me a headache! Swing that tile, brother! I bet if I went and got your crusty old mother she wouldn’t have no troubles lighting me up.”
If only he knew. The Sarge would’ve paid big cash to take my place right now. Sparky isn’t one of her favorite people. She would’ve hit him so hard it would’ve knocked his head clean off. I laughed. “Leave my mother out of this.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Luther T. Farrell has got to get out of Flint, Michigan.

As his best friend Sparky says, “Flint’s nothing but the Titanic.”

And his mother, a.k.a. the Sarge, says, “Take my advice and stay off the sucker path.”

The Sarge milked the system to build an empire of slum housing and group homes. Luther’s just one of the many people trapped in the Sarge’s Evil Empire—but he’s about to bust out.

If Luther wins the science fair this year, he’ll be on track for college and a future as America’s best-known and best-loved philosopher. All he’s got to do is beat his arch rival Shayla Patrick, the beautiful daughter of Flint’s finest undertaker—and the love of Luther’s life.

Sparky’s escape plans involve a pit bull named Poofy and the world’s scariest rat. Oh, and Luther. Add to the mix Chester X., Luther’s mysterious roommate; Dontay Gaddy, a lawyer whose phone number is 1-800-SUE’M ALL; and Darnell Dixon, the Sarge’s go-to guy who knows how to break all the rules.

Bucking the Sarge is a story that only Christopher Paul Curtis could tell. Once again the Newbery Award–winning author of Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 gives us a whole new angle on life and a world full of unforgettable and hilarious characters. Readers will root for Luther and Sparky every step of the way.

Praise for The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963:

“An exceptional first novel.”—Publishers Weekly, Starred

“Ribald humor . . . and a totally believable child’s view of the world will make this book an instant hit.”—School Library
, Starred

Praise for Bud, Not Buddy:

“Curtis has given a fresh, new look to a traditional orphan-finds-a-home story that would be a crackerjack read-aloud.”
School Library Journal, Starred

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