By award winning Ontario author, Christopher Paul Curtis, The Journey of Little Charlie is reminiscent of his first novel in the Buxton Chronicles, Elijah of Buxton. The setting for this story begins in South Carolina where the reader is introduced to the poor white family of Charlie Bobo and the obnoxious slave trader, Cap’t Blake. With threats and violence, Blake forces Charlie to accompany him to Detroit and then St. Catherines, Ontario to apprehend slaves who escaped nine years earlier.
The intended audience is mature junior and senior high school readers. They will learn about the indignities, physical and emotional abuse that slaves suffered in captivity. Curtis pairs this with explicit examples of how, once free, Black people were able to find work and education. In contrast, poor white southerners, like Charlie Bobo, still struggled as share croppers in 1885.
Told in the first person, the voice is that of Charlie Bobo. The dialogue is written in the dialect he would have spoken at that time. Good readers will quickly adjust to the misspellings, sentence structure and idiomatic speech Curtis uses in order to make the speech authentic.
Curtis’ well-developed characters include Black men and women who are respectful, strong, intelligent and determined. In contrast, the southern slave traders are narrow-minded and cruel. Caught in the middle, Charlie has a good heart and the innate intelligence to evaluate what he sees. He is surprised by the easy friendship that develops between himself and his Black captive; surprised that Blacks in Detroit and Canada live peacefully and equitably together.
The obvious themes of poverty and slavery are throughout, but this novel’s significance is in Bo’s gradual awakening to the reality of slavery, the redemptive power of freedom and education, and the manipulation and violence that has been visited on himself and his family. The reader will cheer for Bo and the actions that he takes in this coming of age novel.
In his author’s notes, Curtis says of Charlie:
“I was convinced that even though he was raised in racism, ignorance and all encompassing poverty, he was part of the brave minority…who was capable of seeing the lie of what he’d been taught…and possessed great courage…to cross a line” (p. 241). Charlie’s metaphorical “journey” is not only physical, but emotional and psychological.