.What makes Christopher Paul Curtis’s writing so funny? Reading the sequel to his Newberry Honor award-winning 2007 novel, Elijah of Buxton, I think I figured it out. Funny happens when the reader is thrown off balance. Curtis keeps us in the moment when we’ve just slipped on the banana peel, our arms windmilling around, but he doesn’t let us fall
His new novel has us off-kilter right from the title of the first chapter: “The American Civil War 1901.” What follows is a highly unlikely scene of warfare with a Confederate bad guy saying “yee-haw” and a first-person narrator describing his own death. What is going on? This is, of course, a scene depicting a gang of boys playing war, including one of the novel’s heroes: Benji of Buxton, Ontario. We’re so tickled by the joke of Curtis’s misplaced battle, we hardly notice that the author has also introduced three serious themes that permeate the book: the trauma of war, the power of male friendship, and the deep pleasure of words.
The Madman of Piney Woods takes place 40 years after Elijah of Buxton, the story of a Canadian community of escaped slaves. For returning readers, the question of what happened to Elijah and baby Hope fades quickly (even though Curtis is hiding the answers in plain sight), because we are immediately drawn in by Benji and a second narrator, Red, a white boy from the neighbouring town of Chatham. The two narratives dance along in parallel for a while, as tales of small-town life – with pranks,
larger-than-life characters, elaborate practical jokes, and early adolescent one-
upmanship – keep us entertained. It is part Tom Sawyer, part The Secret Life of Owen Skye, and more than a bit Angel Square.
When the two boys meet, halfway through the novel, the narrative tone shifts, with Curtis introducing characters and plot lines that are anything but funny. The tall tale of the titutlar madman – a bogeyman story meant to keep children in line – turns out to be based on a real person who becomes the emotional heart of the novel. And Red’s grumpy Irish grandmother – at first presented as a comic, almost vaudevillian character – reveals a dark side.
Curtis gives both of his young heroes strong ambitions. Red wants to be a scientist, which allows the author to demonstrate his gift for historical detail. What lends his version of 1901 verisimilitude are not the descriptions of technology, clothing, or expressions, but the representation of the way people thought, including their sturdy faith in science to solve problems. Benji and Red aren’t modern boys in historical costumes; they are boys of their time.
Benji’s goal is to become a newspaper reporter. As the boy thinks in terms of punchy newspaper headlines, the reader is given handy signposts to the story’s emotional arc. We also see Benji growing up as his writing develops from hilarious, bombastic, thesaurus-soggy reports on local events to stories in the local newspaper in which he harnesses both head and heart.
We are kept on our toes shuttling back and forth between Benji and Red’s perspectives, and the anachronistic Civil War is not the only narrative practical joke. The action is constant, with various plot elements being juggled simultaneously. Then, at two quiet moments in the story, the action slows. The first, in which the Madman appears at a campfire storytelling session and shares his battle experiences, is as shocking and gritty as any found in a contemporary-set YA novel. What he reveals are the classic symptoms of what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.
The second moment of quiet is all the more devastating for its tragic ordinariness. Red’s grandmother, steeped in hatred (for Canadians, the English, and brown-skinned people, in that order), discovers that, in her absence, Benji has been to dinner at her house. She is so revolted at the thought that a black boy has eaten off her china that she scrubs her plates with steel wool until her hands bleed.
In this crisp, wise, and beautifully constructed novel, Curtis uses history as a stage for action, for a life in which children – especially boys – are free to roam the woods, build forts, learn the art of tracking, play fight, apprentice for a career, and risk their lives. Curtis also uses the past as a lens through which we see ongoing human dilemmas, conflicting loyalties, the nature of heroism, the possibility of finding consolation in loss, and how we are both shaped by – and manage to escape – the influence of our families.
These are themes that could be overwhelming, but Curtis’s well-placed humour keeps pulling us back from the edge of darkness, allowing us to laugh even as we learn.