Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

It's 1901 and two 13 year old boys, Benji Alston, an African Canadian living in Buxton, an area settled by former slaves, and Alvin "Red" Stockard, a red-headed Irish Canadian living in nearby Chatham, an area populated by Irish immigrants, are destined to meet…eventually.  Their lives are separated by the woods that fascinates them, even as they hear separate stories about the legendary mysterious "creature" who lives there.  To Benji, he is called The Madman of Piney Woods, to Red, he's the South Woods Lion Man.

Each boy tells his story in alternating chapters.  Benji lives with his family that includes younger twins Patience and Timothy called Stubby, who are gifted at working in wood and apprenticing as carpenters.  Benji has set his sights on becoming a newspaper reporter so all his adventures end with a newspaper headline.  Benji also knows the woods better than anyone he knows, feels them talking to him and is very proprietary towards them.

Red is a lover of factual information and wants to be a scientist.  He lives with his widower father, a judge, and his Grandmother O'Toole, a paranoid mean-spirited somewhat physically abusive racist woman who seems to hate him.  These things and her habit of sneaking up on Red and hitting him with her cane causes him want her to be put into an asylum, but his father refuses.  Now, Red will be happy to just survive living with her.

At some point, both boys have an encounter with the madman of Piney Woods, and both are surprised to discover the monster of their imaginations is, in fact, a kind, quiet, rational man, who has chosen to live in the woods for his own reasons, which are revealed as the story unfolds.  Both when Benji and Red finally meet, the madman becomes a point of connection and friendship and catalyst for adventure. And he has a lot to teach them.

Both boys have been pretty content living in the present.  But when the madman causes the past to come up and wash over them, they begin to realize how connected to their pasts and to their sorrows they actually are.  For Benji, that past is slavery, the Underground Railroad, the American Civil War and the treatment of black Union soldiers; for Red, it's the Irish potato famine and watching helplessly as family began to die, later, it was the coffin ships in the St. Lawrence River where Grandmother O'Toole was forced to remain until a typhus epidemic ended, waiting and watching as more family dies.  

I've always known that Christopher Paul Curtis can really write a moving, spellbinding story and The Madman of Piney Woods is no exception, although when I first started reading it, I had some doubts.   But it didn't take long to get totally hooked into these two boys and their stories and as they do, they will make you laugh, cry and break your heart.  Their stories can be violent in spots, but none of it is gratuitous.  And reading their stories in alternating chapters sounds like it may be confusing, but it really isn't.

At the heart of the story is a mystery that Benji and Red work together to solve.  The mystery is one of those things that to go into any detail would reveal too much of what should be allowed to unfold as you read, so just suffice it say, it takes a while to get there, so enjoy the read knowing you will find out what the mystery is eventually.

Technically, this is a sequel to Elijah of Buxton, even though it is 40 years later.  But it is also a stand alone novel, and anything you needed to know from the first book is included in this one.  And no doubt, the themes of friendship and family with resonate with readers, I think they will also appreciate the intense relationships between the generations.  Also, the theme of prejudice is also explored in some unusual ways, bearing in mind that Canada is not have the kind of intense racial conflicts that the US had in its past.  But again, to say more gives too much away.

This book is recommended for (mature) readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

No comments:

Post a Comment

Imagination Designs