The Madman of Piney Woods

Book review by
Terreece Clarke, Common Sense Media
The Madman of Piney Woods Book Poster Image
Moving 1901 adventure explores race, class, mental illness.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Author Christopher Paul Curtis does a fantastic job bringing a historical period to life while doing so from a personal perspective. Readers learn about the Ireland potato famine and Irish immigration to North America through the eyes of a woman who lived through it, which brings the horrors of the experience to life. Additionally, although much has been written about the American Civil War from an American perspective, this book shows a Canadian perspective while stripping away the romanticism of the period and of war.

Positive Messages

Powerful messages about  the importance of friendship despite people having different backgrounds, having respect for nature, and the importance of showing kindness toward all people regardless of their appearance and background.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The Madman of Piney Woods deals with war, famine, race, domestic violence, poverty, and mental health issues with complexity rather than by painting with broad strokes. Each character is presented in a nuanced way to show that people who make wrong decisions (bad choices) are not necessarily evil and people who make correct decisions (good choices) don't necessarily do so simply because they are inherently good. Positive adult and child role models work well together throughout the book.

Violence

This book is not an easy read. There are violent portrayals of war crimes, murders, domestic violence, and death. We see adults and children injured and bleeding. One story, told as a flashback, tells of soldiers scalping troops -- both dead and alive. A victim recalls the pain he experienced, the blood, how others who had been scalped looked, and so on. There are situations where a father beats his wife and children. A child recounts one incident, describing the injuries, including a bloody eye, a split lip, and a hanging gash on the chin. The violence in the book is not gratuitous, but it's discussed in a very blunt manner.

Sex

A woman is discussed as being pregnant.

Language

Some mild name-calling including nicknames such as "Stubby" for a woodworker who tended to lose fingers in the line of work. Some racist characters use objectionable references to African-Americans, including the words "coon" and "darkie."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A man is described as an alcoholic; children come into contact with his empty bottles and smell the alcohol that remained in the bottles. Some adults smoke.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Madman of Piney Woods by Newbery Medal-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy) is a companion novel to Curtis' Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, set 40 years later, in 1901, in the same Canadian town of Buxton, Ontario. (You don't have to read Elijah to understand this one, but it adds to the experience.) The Madman of Piney Woods discusses race, the Civil War, the Irish immigration to Canada following the potato famine, and mental illness. It also shows violent acts during war battles, the death of an adult, the death of an animal, and domestic violence. Although not gratuitous, the violence is mentioned in a matter-of-fact way, and the author pulls no punches in describing blood, pain, smells, and the like. Children who are particularly sensitive should exercise caution.

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What's the story?

Benji and Red couldn't be more different. Benji is African-American, loves the woods, and wants to grow up to be a newspaper reporter. Red is Irish with bright red hair and approaches everything like the scientist he wants to be. The one thing they have in common is the fearful soul that wanders the woods between their two towns. When a chance meeting brings the boys together, their adventurous peek into the life of the mysterious man in the woods is both beautiful and tragic.

Is it any good?

Kids will love THE MADMAN OF PINEY WOODS for its mystery, adventure, and ordinary moments that become extraordinary. The opportunity to see both sides of the story is offered throughout the book, though the back and forth between the characters can be a bit confusing at times. The personal perspectives on race, class, mental illness, and the complexities of life give the novel weight and create a real connection for readers.

Parents will appreciate the care author Christopher Paul Curtis took to offer varying perspectives on the tough subjects highlighted in the novel. He did a fantastic job in creating a story for children that isn't dumbed down or over dramatized. It can be jarring and frank at some points, simple and fun at others -- just like life. Parents and kids might want to read the book together to take advantage of the wonderful discussion opportunities it presents.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the book shows both sides of the story. Can you think of an instance in history where only one side of the story was shown in the media? Why is it important to examine all sides of an issue?

  • How is the American Civil War commonly portrayed in literature and film? How does this compare with how it's portrayed in The Madman of Piney Woods

  • Red and Benji are almost opposites in the way they look and their family backgrounds, yet they're great friends. How do their differences affect their friendship? Can you find ways they're the same?

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