How 'The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963' Saved My Life
Celebrating my first novel's 25th anniversary.
October 21, 2020 at 9:22 pm
The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 saved my life.
After quitting a spirit-crushing, 13-year-long job at Flint’s Fisher Body car factory, I spent years in limbo bouncing from one dead end temporary staffing agency job to the next. I’ve come to picture my life as a huge ocean liner churning its way along at differing speeds, sometimes chugging mightily, but more frequently mired in the doldrums. I even gave the ship a name: the S.S. Christopher.
As a child, while living in my parent’s home, I sat comfortably on the deck of this ship, never considering that the kindness, warmth and love I was experiencing were neither promised nor eternal.
Sometime around 1966, 13-year-old Christopher was strolling the decks of that ship and was smacked in the mouth by unexpected turbulence. I’m not sure what hit me, but I found myself washed overboard, buffeted in the ship’s wake as it left me behind.
I went from being a 13-year-old cheerful, “academically talented,” well-adjusted vice-president of the student council, to someone who was sullen and uninterested in school, whose one career aspiration was to become a hermit.
Was adolescence the tsunami that swept me overboard, or was it the gut-punch of watching my old neighborhood being ground to ashes and dust for something called “urban renewal”? Maybe it was the trauma of going from an all Black elementary school and neighborhood to a new junior high and neighborhood that were 98% white?
There’s an old Canadian joke about the vast, flat emptiness of the Manitoba prairies. The punchline is that a Winnipeg man’s girlfriend left him and he sat on his front porch for three weeks watching as she walked away.
That’s how I felt as I spent decades watching the S.S. Christopher shrink into the horizon. Occasionally I’d be inspired to start stroking to try to catch it. Most of the time though, I’d tread water and think, what’s the point?
In my early 40s, I had a temp job at a warehouse unloading trucks in Allen Park, Michigan. After a particularly rough day the words of my dear old friend Alvin Stockard came back to me, “You’ll never get a hit if you don’t at least swing the bat.”
I decided to have one more go at catching that receding ship.
I’d always suspected I could write a book. For the next year I dedicated nearly every day to sitting in the Windsor Public Library working on a novel about a Flint family’s trip “down home.”
The result was the manuscript for The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963. When I finished, I found two contests for beginning novelists in the book Writer’s Market, 1992. I submitted my novel to Delacorte Press and another publisher, and went back to the tedium of unloading trucks and waiting.
It didn’t take long for the second publishing house to turn the book down with a personalized rejection letter, which every writing magazine I’d read said is a real accomplishment and cause of pride.
But, man, after the editor wrote that while my characters seemed real and funny and overall my story was good, she was, “… afraid it simply will not resonate with young readers after the final page is turned.”
I felt as though I had been hugged from head to toe by a straight razor!
I realized if Delacorte’s First Contemporary Young Adult Fiction Contest turned me down that would be the end of my non-existent writing career. I’ve never understood Herman Melville-like writers who are strong enough to expose themselves to scores of rejection letters. If two separate people from major publishing houses told me something wasn’t good, I could see no benefit in having that judgement confirmed by 30 or 40 other editors.
There are no lessons to be learned from the second kick of a mule.
Salvation, however, can come from the oddest of places.
A life ring splashed in front of me one afternoon when I got home from the warehouse to find there was a message on the telephone’s answering machine.
A bubbly, enthusiastic woman had left a message telling me The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 was too young to win the Delacorte contest but, she added, “We like it so much we’re going to publish it anyway!”
She promised I’d be hearing from her soon. She said her name was Wendy Lamb.
Wendy Lamb? Really? Wendy Lamb?
“Wendy Lamb” sounded like the perfect name some lame, low-creativity prankster would give to a children’s book editor. But Wendy Lamb turned out to be largely legit, and after our first conversation I let out a long held sigh.
To my surprise and joy I looked down and found my waterlogged, dripping feet back on the deck of the S.S. Christopher.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 had saved my life. And now it’s celebrating its 25th anniversary.
And what an appropriate time for this to be happening!
I had of late become more and more pessimistic about the human condition and our country’s future. Though they were turbulent times, I’ve always felt the late ‘60s were a halcyon period of American history. An era most nobly represented by the Freedom Riders, a group of courageous young African-American and white people who literally put their lives on the line for the civil rights of all Americans. I’d come to believe that brief moment in time when a multi-racial, multi-religious group of young people came together to work for change was ephemeral and long gone.
I’ve seen almost no evidence of that spirit since.
Imagine my surprise and joy as I watched news reports of the resurgence of that spirit through the Black Lives Matter movement, as I witnessed an army of young African-American, white, Latinx and Asian faces in the streets of cities across the U.S., Canada and the world demanding justice. All triggered improbably by the horrific killing of one Black man.
It does look as though the times they are a-changing.
These selfless young activists have provided a defibrillating shock to my spirits. When I think of how many of them were born after The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963 was first published and realize there’s a good possibility some teacher may have introduced one of them to Kenny, Byron and Joetta, I become even more joyful. I’m moved to tears when I think that even one of these brave young people may have taken to heart the words I wrote 25 years ago in this book’s epilogue, “These freedom fighters are the true American heroes. They are the boys and girls, the women and men who have seen that things are wrong and have not been afraid to ask ‘Why can’t we change this?’ They are the people who believe that as long as one person is being treated unfairly, we all are. These are our heroes, and they still walk among us today. One of them may be sitting next to you as you read this, or standing in the next room making your dinner, or waiting for you to come outside and play. One of them may be you.”
From ‘The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963’ Anniversary Edition
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