February 13, 2018

The Madman of Piney Woods

Written by Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Canada
363 pp.
Ages 8-12

Though I don't often review books older than a year, I referred to this title several times in my review of The Journey of Little Charlie yesterday so that I thought it was incumbent upon me to share the importance of this volume now.  Fortunately, I must also address Christopher Paul Curtis' book  Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007) which first speaks to the historically important town of Buxton, originally a settlement of runaway slaves.

In 1859, eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is the first free-born child in Buxton, Canada, a haven for slaves fleeing the American south.  In his story, Elijah of Buxton, Elijah uses his wits to find justice when money earmarked to buy a family's freedom is stolen.

In 1901, forty years after the story of Elijah of Buxton, the storylines of two unlikely friends, Benji and Red, converge in an unexpected manner to tell a new story for Buxton.  Benji Alston is a black boy living in Buxton whose shenanigans with his friends Spencer and  others become imagined newspaper stories.  Benji spends much of his time in the pine woods between Chatham and Buxton, and makes the acquaintance of a hermit-like man in the woods who, similar to Benji, is more comfortable in the woods than anywhere else.  Red is an Irish boy who lives with his father, a judge, and his highly prejudiced Grandmother O’Toole in Chatham.  Meanwhile Red and his friends talk of the Lion Man of the South Woods of whom they've learned they should avoid.

The two boys become friends after meeting at a speech competition.  When Red suspects that the Madman, whom he knows to be a friend of Benji’s, has been shot, the two become forever entwined with the mysterious man of the woods whose story began in Elijah of Buxton.

Told in alternating chapters in the voices of the two boys, The Madman of Piney Woods becomes an adventure story with a haunting mystery based in the past.  The horrors that a Black Canadian soldier endured because of the American Civil War or that an Irish immigrant escaping the devastation of the Potato Famine suffered before a tortuous journey on a coffin ship are as real as the memories of enslavement of many Buxton inhabitants.  Benji and Red may never have endured these horrors but these very different and yet surprisingly ordinary boys are defined by their friends and family. Still Christopher Paul Curtis contrives an authentic story by which the two come together to work together and make things right that have been wrong for too long. As I wrote yesterday in my review of The Journey of Little Charlie, from the ordinary comes the extraordinary.

History may take place in the past but The Madman of Piney Woods reminds us that the past engraves the present and the future for the survivors of war, slavery and all manner of disaster as well as for those who love them.

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