Christopher Paul Curtis’s 2014 historical novel The Madman of Piney Woods
, intended for middle grade readers, works as a quasi-sequel to Curtis’s critically acclaimed work Elijah of Buxton
. Picking up several of the same characters forty years in the future, The Madman of Piney Woods
tracks the relationship between two boys growing up in Ontario at the turn of the twentieth century. One is black, the descendant of enslaved people, and the other is Irish, a second-generation immigrant; each functions as a first-person narrator in alternating chapters. Together, they face the prejudices that surround them, confront painful family history, and solve the mystery of the mythical figure that haunts the woods where they love to play.
The novel is set in 1901, in two small towns connected by a forest in Ontario, Canada. Buxton, founded by formerly enslaved people who fled north from the United States, now is home to a vibrant black community. Thirteen-year-old Benji Alston lives in Buxton with his parents and two younger siblings, Patience and Timothy (or Stubby) with whom he has a loving but contentious relationship. Benji loves two things—journalism and the woods—and when he grows up, he wants desperately to become the world’s greatest reporter.
Benji receives an apprenticeship on the local paper, where he hopes to hone his journalistic instincts. At the same time, he tries to combat the encroachment of his younger siblings into the woods. Patience and Stubby, who are both excellent woodworkers, create a tree house in a part of Piney that Benji thinks of as his own. Furious, he painstakingly takes the tree house apart and rebuilds in a different place—upside down.
Meanwhile, in nearby Chatham, thirteen-year-old Alvin Stockard lives with his father, a judge, and his Irish immigrant grandmother. Because of his hair, Alvin has been nicknamed Red; a sensitive and inquisitive boy, he wants to become a scientist. Red’s father is supportive but has been somewhat withdrawn ever since Red’s mother died when he was little. Mother O’Toole, Red’s grandmother, is a cantankerous, mean-spirited woman who seems to hate Red, and who is both verbally and physically abusive towards him.
Red has been accepted into a special school where he can fully pursue his love of science and fact. However, life with his grandmother grows increasingly difficult the more she feels free to unload her racism and paranoia in Red’s presence. When Red can no longer tolerate the way she sneaks up on him in order to hit him with her cane hard enough to raise welts, he begs his father to put her into an asylum. However, his father refuses to do this, telling Red that Mother O’Toole suffered greatly as a young girl and has never fully recovered.
Red is friends with Curly Bennett, whose father is an abusive drunk who hurts Curly’s mother, his brother, Quince, and Curly himself. In order to account for his bruises and broken bones, Curly tries to get into fights with other boys so he can have a better reason to be injured. Horrifying rumors swirl around Mr. Bennett—he is reputed to have once killed an innocent man and gotten away with it. Terrified of his father, Curly secretly dreams of killing him to protect his brother and mother.
Red and Benji don’t know each other, but they both have a strong affinity for Piney Woods, a heavily treed forest where many of the local kids play. Benji feels a deep connection to the woods, not simply enjoying being there, but often feeling that he is a part of the forest. So strong is this link that he often has a kind of sixth sense about anyone else in the forest with him—he is so aware of his surroundings there that it is almost impossible for anyone to sneak up on him. This ability has allowed Benji to confirm the existence of a mysterious, and some say mythical, figure who has made his home in Piney Woods.
When Benji and Red meet, they realize that they both have seen the isolated man in the woods. Buxton lore has identified the man as an old escaped slave, and Benji refers to him as The Madman of Piney Woods. Red, meanwhile, knows about the man from Chatham stories, which more fancifully peg him as a half-lion monster known as South Woods Lion Man. Because both are driven by the desire to uncover the truth—Benji as a reporter and Red as an aspiring scientist—they decide to seek the man out in order to confirm once and for all exactly what and who he is.
While Benji and Red investigate, Red is on the receiving end of his grandmother’s racist bile—she is appalled that Red would be friends with a black person. Red’s father tries to temper her influence, torn between feeling he needs to take care of his mother-in-law, and his concerns over whether she will destroy Red’s inherent good nature. Eventually, he and Red ask Mother O’Toole to tell them her life story. They learn that when she came to Canada as a girl, she was quarantined on the nightmarish Irish coffin ships meant to isolate newly arrived immigrants who had contracted typhoid. She watched her entire family die around her, unable to help or escape. She has since taken the rage and bitterness fomented during that time and turned it outward, at everyone who can be belittled.
After some time, Benji and Red discover the Madman in the woods. Unlike the stories that describe him as a wild and sub-human creature, the man is actually a kind, quiet, and entirely rational man who has chosen to live in the woods because of a dark period in his past. As they learn more about it, the man—Cooter, a character in Elijah of Buxton
—tells them about surviving the horrific Fort Pillow Massacre during the Civil War. After witnessing the monstrous butchery that the troops under Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest unleashed on Union African-American troops trying to surrender, Cooter lost some of his ability to be around other people.
In the novel’s climax, Mr. Bennett shoots Cooter, and Benji and Red are instrumental in getting him help in time to allow him to live. In the end, Cooter leaves the woods, reuniting with some of the people who knew him before the war, including Benji’s mother.