He gave me a little smile.
"Hot enough for you?"
For a second I wondered if he said this because he was being racialist."
The two main characters are Benji Alston and Red Stockard. Benji is a black boy, and lives in Buxton. Red is of Irish descent, and lives in Chatham. Their towns are separated by the Piney Woods. Both have heard scary stories of a wild man who lives in those woods. Their stories are told in short alternating chapters, with humor and with a sense of adventure that will keep readers moving to the place where those stories make a connection.
Full of suspense and not a little worry that the boys might get themselves in real trouble, I powered through the reading in one sitting. It is intense and engaging. Yet, at every turn, I felt hopeful that life would be enriched by their meeting. Together, they work to solve a mystery. As we read their separate stories we have a real sense of what life in Canada was like in the early twentieth century. We meet secondary characters, whose presence will cause readers to wonder about their families and their troubled lives. Curly and Petey are not soon forgotten. Nor is Grandmother O'Toole!
The 'madman' is Cooter, a Civil War survivor, whose story is heartbreaking and a testament to the horrors of the trauma unleashed during combat. His need to live in the solace of the woods has fueled the stories of a wild thing lurking there to terrorize and hurt anyone who might come near. As this story unfolds we learn more about both Red and Benji. Red is missing his dead mother, his father does his best to show warmth and affection in light of the fact that Red's angry, bigoted, tragic grandmother is living with them to help out. Benji lives with strong support and a loving family. Both have heard the terrifying stories of a mysterious 'monster' living close by.
"Cooter always did look younger than he was, so 'stead of enlisting him as a soldier, they took him on as a drummer boy. He joined up with the Sixth Regiment United States Colored ... He never would talk about it, but he had some times in that war that no one should ever have to go through. No one. Especially not one as kind as Cooter."
I laughed and I cried with these remarkable characters. Once again, as I have been with each and every book written by Christopher Paul Curtis, I am in awe of his storytelling. He writes with power, and an uncanny ability to keep us always moving forward with hope despite the feeling of being reticent to find out what might happen next.
Brilliantly plotted with exceptional characters and a fine story to tell, it a book that should be shared and discussed in middle years classrooms.