Total Pageviews

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Madman of Piney Woods, by Christopher Paul Curtis. Scholastic, 2014. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"It was hard to tell what this boy would look like on a day that wasn't so hot, but with his bright red hair and freckles, it made me think someone had lit a match, then as a joke dressed it in knickers, a suit jacket, and a necktie.
He gave me a little smile.
"Hot enough for you?"
For a second I wondered if he said this because he was being racialist."

We are back in Buxton, Ontario. It is a town, as you will know if you read Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007), that was settled by those who opposed slavery and by runaway slaves. It is now forty years after the memorable events of that first tale.

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.
When Benji and Red find Cooter dying in the woods of a gunshot wound, it is up to them to get help. Red stays with Cooter while Benji does his best to find his way out of the darkness that has enveloped the Piney Woods. Only after they have successfully brought him out of the woods and into a warm, safe place do they learn Cooter's full story:

"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.

No comments:

Post a Comment