The Madman of Piney Woods

by Christopher Paul Curtis
First sentence: “The old soldiers say you never hear the bullet that kills you.”
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Content: There’s nothing, language wise. However, Curtis tackles some pretty heavy issues: slavery, of course; but also Irish immigration, abuse, racism. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I would exercise caution about giving this to sensitive children. Good for discussion, though.

It’s 1901, and Benji is a pre-teen in the all-black town of Buxton, Canada. He has a couple of younger siblings that get on his nerves, a best friend who is a good orator, and is both an aspiring newsman and someone who loves the woods. Red is a pre-teen in the nearby town of Chatham. His grandmother was an Irish immigrant, and he’s positively scared of her wrath. He spends his days in school, with his friends — one of whom has an alcoholic, abusive father — and at home dealing with his grandmother.

They’re the most unlikely of friends, but when they do meet, they hit it off.

Which comes in handy the night that the Madman of Piney Woods — a local homeless black veteran of the Civil War — is shot. It’s up to Benji and Red to make everything turn out, if not okay, then at least better than it could have ended.

Perhaps I should have taken the time, once I figured out that this was set in the same place, to reread Elijah of Buxton. Maybe I would have connected to it better. But, I think the main problem I have with this one is that the plot took a long time to show up. It’s told in alternating chapters, one Benji (who was more interesting than Red), one Red. And it took FOREVER for them to meet. (More than halfway through the book!). Once they met, the plot picked up, and I was able to finish fairly quickly. I did appreciate that Curtis was exploring ideas and themes that are tough to manage: the way humans treat other people being the primary theme. It’s an important thing to expose kids to, and to do so with a bit of a mystery story (more or less) is a good thing.

But that wasn’t enough to make me love this book, even though I really wanted to.

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