Monday, February 16, 2015

MMGM: The Madman of Piney Woods

I have a friend who reads mostly classic novels, and we often discuss what she’s reading. One day she made a comment I thought was rather profound: “These books are hard work to read, but the benefits are huge.”

Her comment made me think of the Newberry winners. They are not often fast reads, but well worth the effort.
Christopher Paul Curtis’ THE MADMEN OF PINEY WOODS is like this. It is filled with well-drawn, multifaceted characters that I’ll be thinking about for some time. 

The synopsis (from Amazon):

Bestselling Newbery Medalist Christopher Paul Curtis delivers a powerful companion to his multiple award-winning ELIJAH OF BUXTON.

Benji and Red couldn't be more different. They aren't friends. They don't even live in the same town. But their fates are entwined. A chance meeting leads the boys to discover that they have more in common than meets the eye. Both of them have encountered a strange presence in the forest, watching them, tracking them. Could the Madman of Piney Woods be real?

In a tale brimming with intrigue and adventure, Christopher Paul Curtis returns to the vibrant world he brought to life in Elijah of Buxton. Here is another novel that will break your heart -- and expand it, too.

Here’s what I loved:

     A dual-POV that worked. I am generally not a fan of multiple POV, especially two 1st person narrators. Either the voices are not distinct enough or one person’s story is more interesting than the other, so I find myself skimming one POV to get back to the other. But in MADMAN, both Red and Benji’s stories are intriguing on their own, their voices are distinct, and woven seamlessly together once they meet.

     Interesting parents and adult characters. It’s always refreshing when adults don’t disappear in middle grade novels, but are integral to the plot and fascinating in themselves. You must read this just for Benji’s punishments in the Amen corner and Grandmother O’Toole’s cane with a bell.

     Humor woven with tragedy. As Benji’s mother says, bad news may come in threes, but “…good news rides on the same horse.” Although this novel dealt with the harsh realities of the black regiments in the Civil War and the Irish coffin ships, it was also filled with humor and hope.

An opportunity to revisit Buxton. I adored Elijiah of Buxton, so I was excited to be back in that world. Christopher Paul Curtis is one of a few authors that I automatically read, because I know whatever he writes will be amazing. It’s also nice to see an established writer continue to outshine himself with each book.

     A powerful conclusion and theme. I loved that Curtis showed how adversity can either make you bitter or stronger. A wonderful message, powerfully done.

For writers: One of the things I found interesting about this novel was how it threw you into the world and the action with very little explanation. This was a bit disconcerting at first, especially in the first chapter, but after I got used to it, it really worked for this story. Don’t expect any explanations. Curtis shows you the dialogue, the characters, and the actions and respects you enough as a reader to let you draw your own conclusions.

I’m curious what other readers and writers think about this. I’ve read some novelists who write this way that leave me confused, which I don’t like. If you’re a writer, do you tend to overexplain or underexplain? I tend toward the later, so it was interesting to see how it could be handled well.

If you loved ELIJIAH OF BUXTON or any of Curtis’ other works, you will love this. Its humor is more understated than the WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM, and it is a bit more violent, but most of the violence is off-screen or told in narrative and flashbacks.

Have you read any powerful middle grades lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.


  1. I've only read Bud, Not Buddy, and really liked it. I'll have to check out this series. Thanks.

  2. The cover on this one really pulled me in when I first saw it. As yet I haven't read the story but your review is urging me to take care of this omission. I'm also not a fan of multiple POV's but will give this one a go anyway. Thanks for the review.

  3. Good to hear you enjoyed the duel POVs. It can be difficult to achieve distinct character voices when writing this way. I really liked the premise. Sounds quite intriguing and challenging. Thanks for sharing this one!

  4. I don't need a lot of description and prefer to fill in the gaps with my own imagination.

  5. I hate to admit it, but I haven't read any of the three books by Curtis you mention here, but your description is intriguing. They are all on my TBR list. Thanks for the post.

  6. I love it when unlikely friendships develop. I read a book not too long ago where that happened, and I came away smiling. Can't remember what it was now...but we'll blame that on pregnancy brain.

  7. I love, love, LOVE your friend's quote. It's so true - some of my favorite books are the ones it took a ton of time and work to read. In adult books, Virginia Woolf is like that; in YA, so is Ursula Le Guin. Their work is tough and difficult and so, so beautiful once you really dig in.

  8. This sounds like the kind of book I simply must get--for too many reasons to list! Thank you so much for the recommend!