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Battle of the Books

Round 2, Match 3: The Madman of Piney Woods vs The Port Chicago 50


The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curts
The Port Chicago 50
by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook/Macmillan

Every year, as the Battle Commander gears up for the School Library Journal Battle of the Books, I think I’m going to read all these books. It’s only sixteen and I have three months. For the past two years my own books have been contenders, which makes me a sort of honorary participant anyway (though only as a lurker, too self-conscious to comment except to congratulate the winners), plus that means I really only have fifteen books to read. And every year I fail miserably to read more than about two or three. (I’ll leave you to guess which.)

The great thing about being a second round judge is that you kind of have to expect you might need to read ALL the books, just in case. This year I am smug, because I’d already read three of them (a real first for me). As I worked my way through the rest, I ranked them to make my final judging job simpler.

It didn’t make it simpler. WOE, I hadn’t yet read The Madman of Piney Woods when I found out my pairing. But I’d read and reviewed (in audio form) The Port Chicago 50 for The New York Times Book Review last autumn. I thought I’d read it again on paper in all its illustrated glory before I made my final decision, and to put the two books on a more equal footing as I passed judgment, I’d read The Madman of Piney Woods first.

In fact, brilliant though The Port Chicago 50 is, I am a fiction reader. I set out with a secret bias toward The Madman of Piney Woods, simply because it is fiction. I am aware of this prejudice and I am annoyed at it. You know the old judge’s saw, “How do I choose between apples and oranges –  these are both so different and both so good?” I really enjoyed Roger Sutton’s no-nonsense “Judging of the Judges” a couple of years ago, and I paid close attention. I’m Robin (an old hero of mine) and Roger’s Batman, smacking me upside the head and demanding, “CHOOSE!” So no namby-pamby here. None of this “They’re both so good, they’re both so different, it’s a forced and false decision.” One of them has got to be a better book.

I paid close attention to Roger’s admonishments, and decided that if I ever had the heady honor and privilege of being a Battle of the Books judge myself (you don’t know how thrilled I am to be here – YOU DO NOT KNOW), I would decide which of my assigned books was better not by which I liked better, or which I enjoyed reading more, or which was more engaging, or which spoke more to my own worldview or values (though of course all these things do affect the reading experience), but by which best does the job it sets out to do.

Also, because I am passing judgment and because I am described in my judge’s bio as being opinionated, I approached the reading of these books with an eye to writing a critique about them rather than a review. I think there is a subtle difference. I was on the lookout for flaws, maybe unfairly, but I was also looking harder than I normally would for purpose and strengths – rather than just enjoying (or not) the reading.

So, on to the books!

I came to The Madman of Piney Woods not knowing a darn thing about it or about its author, beyond a vague memory of tons of praise for Elijah of Buxton some years ago on the now defunct Adbooks listserv moderated by Jonathan Hunt. I dove in way too fast. I am ashamed and embarrassed to admit that my first reading was so careless that until page 62 I thought that Red was in fact Spencer, Benji’s friend.

In Part Two I settled down. I started to think back over the structure of the novel and I knew I’d ripped through it so fast I’d missed recognizing how carefully it was set up – in the first part, “Buxton and Chatham,” the scene is set through the separate viewpoints of the dual narrators, with the paired yet different towns contrasting and joined by the Piney Woods; then in “Benji and Red” the protagonists come together and form a partnership. And then I saw how the long, drawn-out structure of the book, with its digressions and storytellings and red herrings and cameos and vignettes, are all a great woven tapestry of words leading to the climactic final pages where Red and Benji and Cooter all come together.

I had another epiphany as I neared the end of the book on the first reading – well, it won’t come as an epiphany to anyone who’s familiar with Elijah of Buxton – but along about page 300 it suddenly dawned on me that this is the story of the Next Generation. So part of the fun Curtis is having as an author is that he’s playing with old friends and revisiting former happy places – confirmed, of course, in the author’s note where Curtis talks about the self-indulgence and joy and pleasure of revisiting the setting of his earlier book.

“And what a delight it is to come back to Buxton!”

I so get this. As an author, I so deeply understand the heartbreak, the sense of loss, when you have to say goodbye to your characters. You’ve been living with them. In your head, they are as close to you as real people, as dear, and maybe even more familiar because you know their thoughts. I also know how strongly a sense of place can affect the writing of a story and what a pleasure it is to build that place for the reader and to live there in your head.

I described the structure of The Madman of Piney Woods as a tapestry, and on my second reading – comfortably at home in this world now, and reading more carefully – I so much appreciated how the tapestry of this book is woven. There is foreshadowing in the first civil war scene about the nature of the “Madman” – Benji pretending he’s run off to be a drummer boy and regretting it – and then there is Benji’s skill as a woodsman, leading to Cooter telling him Benji reminds him of himself. Red’s father imploring Red to get Grandma O’Toole to tell him her story leads to the tale of the coffin ships. Benji’s early observation that the older settlers of Buxton are curiously protective of the “Madman” lets us know that he’s a real person. There is terrible foreboding very early on when Benji’s friend Spencer threatens to shoot the “Madman” dead if their paths ever cross. The extended goofing around over the tree house, Patience and Stubby’s money-making scheme with the pillow cases, the Miller twins’ fright at the demons and lost souls they think they’ve seen, Benji’s commentary about how truth gets twisted, Red’s father’s independent commentary on the same topic – “It’s human nature to embellish” (page 90) – all drive toward Benji and Red learning to sort out hard evidence from witness testimony, truth from lies, reality from storytelling, facts from forensics.

Even without reading Elijah of Buxton, I feel The Madman of Piney Woods is a successful companion piece to its predecessor. Readers who know and love Buxton and Chatham and their inhabitants are going to embrace this return. Readers who don’t know them will be able to fall in love for the first time.

I’m going to get my irritation with The Port Chicago 50 off my chest right from the start. It will probably surprise you and you can call me a whiner.

This has nothing to do with my overall admiration for Sheinkin’s work championing equal rights in the face of outrageous discrimination, but I am going to point out the Achilles heel of this text because, well, I am a woman and some of us are hypersensitive. Every man in the book is referred to with formal respect either by his full name, his surname, or his surname and rank. In the acknowledgments, there’s one exception – Dr. Robert Allen, or more familiarly Robert, because “he said I could call him that.”

And did Mrs. Roosevelt say you could call her Eleanor, Mr. Sheinkin?

Even Lieutenant Nora Green doesn’t get called by her first name. How come we’re on first name terms with the First Lady? Okay, okay. It’s awkward to use her full name more than once so close together in the same paragraph, we’re maybe in her husband’s mindset at the time and of course he would think of her as “Eleanor,” and it’s to avoid confusion. But given the formal politeness with which EVERYONE else in the book is treated, would it have been so hard to apply it to this ONE relatively powerful and important woman? “Mrs. Roosevelt” or “the First Lady” or even “his wife” would have avoided the familiarity.

I blame the copyeditors. NER.

Aren’t you glad I got that absolutely irrelevant complaint off my chest right away? It kind of reminds me of Miss Cary’s criticism when Benji equates slavery with the “horrible pickle” of listening to a snake oil salesman. Miss Cary wouldn’t have wasted printer’s ink to let my whining see the light of day. But there is no ink involved here, so I CAN.

But I’m also using my skills as an unreliable narrator right now to make you think I might have had a negative reaction to The Port Chicago 50. My real reaction was that of awe at the artistry involved. This book is a seamlessly constructed work that doesn’t just give you the facts of the historical events it describes: this non-fiction story is told through all the conventions which make fiction so palatable. Plot, character, suspense – it’s all here, and the prose is engaging and confiding, easy to read, the tone familiar and accessible. The pictures break up the text in a way that makes you feel like you’re flying through the book, but actually, you don’t need them (as I know, because I first read this as an audio book.)

The first fifty pages are just fantastic. The build-up of suspense works the way it would in fiction: the scene is set quickly, the major character introduced, we see some telling incidents from his past – none of it gratuitous, all of it driving the plot forward. Then we branch out into the wider world to get an idea of what our hero, Joe Small, is really going to have to contend with. We get shown small, unknown moments of discrimination – all of it relevant (how a enlisted black soldier gets into a fist fight because a gang of white men try to get him to take off his uniform, and then he is arrested), some of it frightening (the man who is shot for getting off a bus, and the bus driver never prosecuted), stuff so outrageous you almost wouldn’t believe it to be true if you didn’t know similar events are still going on today. Some of it is so outrageous you feel impotent with disbelief and are reduced to spluttering (the German prisoners of war who are served in the diner while the enlisted black American soldiers are made to go to the back door for handouts). We get the political background, the government’s pandering line, and we get introduced to Thurgood Marshall as another key character, painted with quick, intimate relevant strokes. And interspersed with all this scene-setting and background information is the plot driving forward, the men training and arriving at Port Chicago, their daily grind, their own experiences of segregation and discrimination in their days off duty and their days on duty, with a building sense of foreboding about the inevitable disaster.

The devastation occurs in ten pages and is grippingly painted; the aftermath continues some time longer, as we hear individual stories of the wounded, the sailors’ honorable work in clearing the debris and the bodies, their month or so of shell-shocked recovery, and the national reaction. They are sung as heroes in the papers and the losses are mourned. Then comes the order back to work and the sailors’ refusal to go. We see them digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole without realizing it, until the moment they are brought to trial for mutiny. And it is all explained in clear, straightforward language, without losing any of the early drive: now we are getting to the heart of the outrage. Joe Small is still at the center of the story, but the shock waves spread, like the incredible shock waves of an explosion so large it measured 3.4 on the Richter scale, to the President of the United States. This is a no small trial. This is significant.

In both my listening and my visual reading experience of this book I felt that the actual trial section was the one part of the story that lost momentum. It’s partly due to the fact that the trial itself, in all its farcical twists of rhetoric, is frustratingly repetitive. The same questions get asked over and over, the same witnesses return and they change their stories, and then the prosecution goes back to find other witnesses to bolster their fragile premise and the cycle starts over again. It’s also interesting to note, in a physical reading of the book, that the trial is the least illustrated section of the whole piece. Throughout the rest of the text we never go more than ten pages without a picture turning up: during the trial the text continues unbroken for 34 pages. (And when an illustration does come up, it’s more text – a fascimile.) The trial, and the relentless beat of the prosecution’s leading questions, is the heart of the book.

The pace picks up again as the jury reaches their unbelievably unfair yet inevitable conclusion; and then the quietly surprising aftermath plays out.

The frontispiece of The Port Chicago 50 bears a full list of the full names of the fifty men whose story is told here. It’s not lost on me that this book is a memorial – a wonderful tribute to these men that’s in a sense better than a national monument or a formal posthumous revocation of the mutiny conviction. This book is a living testimony to the groundwork these men laid for the Civil Rights Movement, the injustice they suffered, and their quiet resilience as they put their lives back together afterward. It’s kind of amazing that this memorial exists, and a wonder, a marvelous thing, that it exists as a children’s book. This is a story that will now be told, noticed and remembered. I love it when a book is more than a book.

It’s not without bias. The sensibilities the author brings to this work deeply affect the reader’s reception of it, and by contrast The Madman of Piney Woods is more objective in its outlook, allowing you to see prejudice and hatred from within and to form your own opinion of whether or not it’s justified.

I always feel that there’s an element of high-falutin’ sanctimony in judging fiction against non-fiction. Non-fiction is always so much worthier. I feel this keenly in my own writing – the most irritating reviews of Code Name Verity or Rose Under Fire are the ones where the reader says, “This isn’t as valuable as an account by someone who actually lived through these experiences.” Facepalm. No, of course it isn’t. Do you think we fiction writers all see ourselves as snake oil salesmen, trying to fool you into thinking our moonshine is the elixir of youth? All of us, writers of fiction and non-fiction alike, tell stories that we feel demand to be told. It’s an urge to share, not to impress. I’m not going to judge these two books on their inherent values, but on how well they share their stories.

In this case, the framework of the text lifts The Port Chicago 50 from a good book to a great book. And in my opinionated objective judgment of how a text should be constructed, the The Port Chicago 50 is a better book than The Madman of Piney Woods.

This is the paragraph where I talk briefly about Madman’s flaws. Look away if you don’t want to engage. I really hate picking good work apart (in public, anyway).

Here’s the thing about The Madman of Piney Woods: if the tapestry is carefully woven, it’s not tightly woven. Not every page of this book, with its many cameos and vignettes, contributes to the whole. The coffin ship episode is the clearest example. Here we have an entire chapter – a moving, terrifying, horrific and important piece of little-known history – which is essentially irrelevant to the overall story. I get what it does in explaining Grandmother O’Toole’s twisted view of the world, but I’m not even entirely convinced that she herself contributes to the structure of the plot. Truth to tell, I’m not so sure about the treehouse episode either, though again, I get what it does in terms of setting up and tearing down perception. And then there’s the ending, forty pages of wrap-up (ten of which are Cooter’s dying words), and yet we never find out what happens to Curly or his abused family, if Curly does kill his father himself, or if his father is brought to justice at all for shooting Cooter.

I wonder: does Benji’s mother write his name upside-down on his printer’s apron as a nod to the treehouse? It’s little details like this, the upside-down name on the apron, the forensics competition, the many references to the Alston cookie jar, the bell on the Grandmother O’Toole’s cane, that feel like they ought to have some greater meaning and don’t. They are details that are not so much woven into the tapestry but fastened on as appliqué. They do contribute to the success of the finished product, to the pleasure of the reading, but they’re not essential to the novel’s integrity. And sometimes I find them distracting. I’m never a fan of transliterated accents, and stumbled over things like “fount” for “found” and “gunn” for “going to.” Why does Miss Cary need a hyphen to say “Ben-jamin”? Why do the Miller twins run to the Alstons’ house instead of straight home when they’re scared? Okay, that makes plot sense because we need to hear their story, but it feels forced. And why are there so many mature hardwoods (maple and oak both get mentioned several times) in the Piney Woods? These petty unanswered questions and niggling criticisms tip the balance for me in a winning judgment.

Utterly apart from my capacity as a judge, I want to mention what a great pairing these books make as a dual read. Both deal with race, with prejudice, and with the efforts of society, both large and small, to move beyond outmoded and unjust ways of thinking. Both make a valiant effort to get behind the issue of prejudice and discover why it works and how it can be unravelled. And yet these books provide fine and intriguing contrasts, fiction and non-fiction being only the tip of the iceberg. Freedom and stricture are also big issues here. The Madman of Piney Woods is humorous and gentle, full of love and introspection, showing the radiating links of family, friends, school, work, and how the past informs the present. The Port Chicago 50 deals with an isolated, closed group and shows how their circumstances and suffering affect the wider world.

There’s so much more to talk about, but I’ll stop now.

And a heartfelt thank you for inviting me to participate in this battle.

— Elizabeth Wein

I get Wein’s gripe about Madman. (Her issue with Port Chicago might be not just because she’s self-described as “opinionated” but because she cares about books and justice down to every last detail. Bravo!) But here’s the question: do you want the world of Buxton to be tightly woven? Upon reflection, I don’t think so. Because, in its almost speculative nature, Madman is creating a world. This is a utopia, where the madman and Grandma O’Toole remind our young heroes of the world’s tall tales and grievous travails. These must not be taken lightly, of course, which is the undercurrent to this sequel, this afterstory. So we can’t know all the answers – we can only laugh at the Miller twins. Still, I’ll admit that I was confused by the laborious plotline and wanted it to just get to the point already. It does not do that as well as Owen, which really should have gone to the Finals (UNDEAD?). Where Madman marvelled me with its winding stories, the dragons carried me off into Storyland – and however much I love Port Chicago, which reads like the saddest, truest fiction, nothing can beat that.

– Kid Commentator RGN

I have to say, I feel a little bit irritated at this pairing. I never really formed a strong liking or disliking for either of these books. My two least favorite genres of books are graphic novels (with a few exceptions) and nonfiction. If I’m completely honest, I don’t think that The Madman of Piney Woods taught me anything new. And if a book isn’t teaching me anything or providing me with profound life lessons, it better be a really engaging book. Unfortunately Madman did neither of those things. At least Port Chicago 50 advanced instead of Madman… Not that I liked it much more. Port Chicago 50 was, at least educational. if This One Summer wins tomorrow, I sincerely hope it doesn’t lose to Port Chicago 50. Same with West of the Moon.

– Kid Commentator NS





  1. HURRAY!! I’ll admit that I haven’t read Madmen yet, but I truly appreciated Port Chicago 50 and admire what Sheinkin did with the story.

    And I love how thoughtfully critical EWein is, but that’s not a surprise. 🙂

  2. *whew* Onward, Team NF!!!

  3. Wow!! Can I just say how impressed I am with Wein’s ability to appreciate, critique and compare two marvelous books AND not wimp out at all, but reach a judgment- based on “by which best does the job it sets out to do.” Bravo!

    I don’t agree, but I can’t quibble with the choice.

  4. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    A quick news flash:

    If you have not, please follow the Battle of the Kids’ Books Pinterest board to see all of Mark Tuchman’s excellent artwork for BoB all gathered in one place!

  5. Great judgement, and not just because I agree entirely with it. I actually hope that Christopher Paul Curtis writes another book so I can find out if Curly kills his dad. I must know! I really liked both of these books, but objectively, I know that Port Chicago is better.

  6. Barb Gogan says

    And to think I was worried ewein was writing all those great comments because she was procrastinating writing her judgement–I guess not!

    The judges have really stepped it up this year and this is the best (to me) so far.

    • hahaha, it is true that I am the Empress of All Procrastinatia.

      No, I was writing all those comments because for once I have read [almost] all the books and don’t have a book of my own I have to be diplomatic about! I’ve really loved participating this year.

  7. I really enjoyed Roger Sutton’s no-nonsense “Judging of the Judges” a couple of years ago, and I paid close attention.

    Can anyone provide a link to this? I’d love to read it!

    Port Chicago 50 was definitely as exciting as most fiction! I think that is actually one of Sheinkin’s greatest strengths: his ability to make the nonfiction read as if it were fiction.

  8. I meant to add thank you Judge Wein for noticing that it was Eleanor, not Mrs. Roosevelt! African Americans were commonly known by their first names back then and I appreciated Sheinkin’s formality to give them the respectful courtesy they did not get in so many ways back then. I hadn’t noticed that he slipped up by using Eleanor but I’m grateful you noticed and pointed it out!


  1. […] Not on our site, but worth a read: Elizabeth Wein invokes Roger in her BoB decision […]

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