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Book Review

This historical fiction book by Christopher Paul Curtis is published by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House Inc., and is written for kids ages 9 to 12. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Deza Malone lives in Gary, Ind., with her parents, Roscoe and Peg, and older brother, Jimmie, during the Great Depression. Deza enjoys writing and excels academically, and Jimmie is known around town for his soulful singing. But jobs are scarce, and racial tensions are high. Like many black men, Roscoe can't find consistent work. The Malones eat welfare food, which is sometimes full of bugs. The black population anxiously anticipates an upcoming fight between Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, and a German named Max Schmeling. They believe a win for Louis will lend dignity and credibility to their race.

Much to Peg's dismay, Roscoe decides to go fishing with friends on Lake Michigan in a small boat. Some of his friends are found dead, and Roscoe is missing. Over a week later, Roscoe reappears. He's filthy, weak and toothless. He's alive, but a different person. His experiences on Lake Michigan, where their boat capsized in the fog, still haunt him. Talking about the upcoming Louis-Schmeling fight seems to rejuvenate him. But when Louis loses, Roscoe's spirits plummet. He tells Peg he can't stand watching everyone starving. Jimmie has stopped growing, but they can't afford to take him to a doctor. Deza's teeth are so rotten that they smell. He leaves for Flint, Mich., to look for work. He promises to send money and to send for the family as soon as he gets settled.

Peg grows tired of waiting to hear from Roscoe. She decides the family will go to Flint to find him. She asks her current employer for a letter of recommendation, but when the kids steam it open, they find it is full of rude, prejudicial remarks. Deza tearfully leaves her best friend and her favorite teacher, Mrs. Needham. A shady friend of Jimmie's drives them to Chicago. A few days later, they hop a train to Detroit. Deza realizes, sitting in the horrible-smelling boxcar, that she's left her only good dress from Mrs. Needham and her precious essays under her bed in Gary.

In Flint, Peg, Jimmie and Deza are forced to find shelter in a shantytown camp. They plan to stay one night but become residents when they're unable to find Roscoe or Grandmother in Flint. When police raid the camp, Jimmie escapes by train with some other musicians. Deza and Peg stay with one of Peg's new co-workers. Deza goes to school but doesn't experience the same enjoyment or encouragement she did in Gary. Their moods improve when they begin receiving letters and money, sent general delivery, from Roscoe. Deza runs into Mr. Zee, a musician from the shantytown who encouraged Jimmie with his singing. Mr. Zee says Jimmie is in Detroit, performing in nightclubs. Deza boards a bus to find him. She discovers he's making good money and has gained a bit of notoriety in town. He insists she stay with him for a few days, and he pays a dentist to fix her rotting teeth.

Jimmie tells Deza the truth about their father's accident on Lake Michigan. A fog rolled in while the men were on the lake. They were in the fog for quite a while. When they saw a ship, they thought it would rescue them. Instead, the ship created a big wave that knocked over their boat. They held onto it and drifted for hours in the cold. That's when people started dying and losing their minds. One of the men accused Roscoe of trying to take his job. He attacked Roscoe. The man knocked out Roscoe's front teeth and started choking him. Roscoe defended himself by hitting his friend with an oarlock. The next thing Roscoe remembered was being in the hospital. He knows he killed his friend.

Deza returns to live with her mother. Another letter arrives from Roscoe. It has an address and the keys for a house he's rented for them back in Gary. Deza is delighted, since the family always hoped to return to their hometown. Soon afterward, Peg hears from a poorhouse in Michigan. They have a man there that she suspects is Roscoe. Peg and Deza take a cab to Flint and find a filthy, shrunken man they know to be Roscoe. He never found work. He had simply given up and planned to die alone. The letters, money, and house keys, Deza realizes, were Jimmie's handiwork. Peg says she always knew the letters weren't from Roscoe, and she never stopped looking for him. Deza's parents reaffirm their love for one another. Peg gets Roscoe cleaned up, and they take him home. On the drive back to Gary, Deza sees traces of the father she remembered and believes their family is back on the road to happiness.

Christian Beliefs

After Deza beats a bully, she says the surrounding crowd of kids parts for her like the Red Sea did for Moses. In a letter to a friend, Peg's wealthy white employer bemoans her troubles and says she is left to wonder at God's mercy.

Other Belief Systems

Deza mentions several times that bad news seems to come in threes for the family.

Authority Roles

Deza's parents are hard workers, at least initially. They're smart, funny and engaged in their children's lives and love each other. After the boating accident, Roscoe isn't the same man, but he is never purposefully a bad authority figure. He still loves his family deeply. He's just downtrodden and depressed, possibly even a little less mentally stable than before the boating accident. He seems to figure that his family is better off without him because he can't improve their lives.

Mrs. Needham gives Deza clothing and a good education. Above all, she gives her confidence and treats her with dignity. From this, Deza believes she is smart and can achieve great things. Dr. Bracy, a lady from whom Jimmie steals a pie, graciously gives him work and tutors him instead of reporting him to authorities.


Heck appears once or twice. When Peg finds out that Jimmie stole a pie, but not from a white woman, she says, "Thank God." The Lord's name is used in vain a few times, including once in Spanish.

The word Negro is used, but it is not used in a derogatory way. Deza mentions a Negro ball league, for example. The only bluntly derogatory reference to blacks in the book comes in the letter from Peg's employer, where she says she hasn't caught Peg stealing, but they all do.


Deza kisses family members and a little boy on the forehead.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at ThrivingFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: Jimmie lies about several things, mainly to keep his family from being hurt by his actions or embarrassed by him. Deza reminds him that telling the truth is always the best policy. Father lies about the events on Lake Michigan because the truth is so painful to him.

Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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