Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Madman of Piney Woods, by Christopher Paul Curtis -- poignant historical fiction (ages 10-13)

With so many tragedies in the news lately, I've been wondering what causes some people to react to life's hardships with hatred and bitterness when others react with empathy and understanding. As I finished reading Christopher Paul Curtis's moving novel The Madman of Piney Woods, the characters gave me strength to face life's hardships and reflect on what's important. This is a companion novel to his Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, but it easily stands alone.
The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic, 2014
Your local library
ages 10-13
*best new book*
Thirteen year old Benji Alston lives in Buxton, Ontario and dreams of becoming a newspaper journalist. The Civil War happened long ago, but its impact still resonates in Buxton, a Canadian town settled by abolitionists and runaway slaves. African-Canadian Benji is excited to start an internship at a local newspaper in nearby Chatham, where he meets Alvin "Red" Stockard, son of an Irish immigrant and a local judge.

Curtis slowly builds this story, immersing readers in each boy's separate life--showing their interactions with friends and family. African-Canandian Benji is most at home in the woods, but he is not a perfect character. He's exceedingly jealous of his younger brother and sister, teasing and tormenting them. Red is the sort of person who watches a situation closely, noticing how people act and interact. It's no surprise when we find out that he dreams of becoming a scientist.

Both boys come across a man--perhaps real, perhaps mythical--living in the woods whom local children fear. Through Benji, readers comes to know The Madman of Piney Woods and learn about the horrors of the Civil War that made him retreat from society. But readers also come to know Red's Irish grandmother and the "coffin ships" that carried her to Canada--and how those experiences led her enduring bitterness.

I know this will be a hard book to summarize for students. It's the sort of book you have to find your way through, trusting friends' recommendations and the author. But it has lasting power, both in its overall themes and in specific passages. On his deathbed, the "Madman" Mr. Bixby gives this final advice to Benji:
“You gotta be careful, boy. Life ain’t fair; it ain’t got no conscience ’bout letting one bad choice you make as a child be the thing what colour every waking minute you has thereafter. You gotta remember to treat each moment and each person as precious, treat ’em all with the same respect I seent you treating them woods.”
Benji has the last word with his first published article, a eulogy for Mr. Bixby which captures the lasting message I take away from this book.
"He is a hero because, in spite of all the horrors he’d witnessed, he never allowed anger nor vengeance to poison his spirit. he is a hero because though surrounded by the ignorance of his fellow man, he never became bitter."
I finished this book feeling like I was a better person for having read it. It reaffirmed my resolutions to keep connected to friends and family, to appreciate life's small moments and special people.

My students love Christopher Paul Curtis's novels Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham. It's interesting that few read Elijah of Buxton. I look forward to encouraging more to trust a favorite author and read this. It will be a perfect fit for students who seek poignant stories, appreciate masterful writing and enjoy becoming immersed in characters' lives.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher Scholastic Press. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. I loved this book when I read it and I know what you mean about feeling like a better person for having read it. The two boys and their friendship certainly had a lot to teach us. I'm glad to hear your students liked it, too.

  2. Thank you, Mary Ann, for making me more aware of the types of books this author writes. I do know that the "Watsons" book is the one which inspired Kate DiCamillo to pursue writing :)