I am on the record as being a huge fan of Curtis’s Buxton books –from Elijah of Buxton (was on the Newbery Committee that gave it an honor) to Madman of Piney Woods (my starred Horn Book review). This one is as terrific as the others.
While the other two books featured black male protagonists in this one Curtis is featuring a young white male, the child of poor white pre-Civil War sharecroppers. After horrific events that leave him without family, Little Charlie Bobo (actually a twelve-year-old the size of an adult man) is forced to go with the local plantation’s overseer to capture some runaway enslaved people. Little Charlie’s voice and dialect is spot-on for a person of his class and situation; he has never been to school and can’t read. That is, spot-on, as much as I can tell — I’m certainly no expert on what it would sound like. Some have referenced Twain which makes sense as he certainly did use such dialog himself in his writing. Some have complained that it was challenging to read — I found it quite easy. Curtis is able to give you such a great sense of his boy protagonists — they are always a tad “fragile”, pensive, and so so good at heart.
From the start Little Charlie is good, everything that happens early on makes that very clear. What he is also is racist, prejudiced, and extremely ignorant. His journey with the evil slave catcher is one of learning, growing, and changing — what we would wish for all who are as limited in early experience as Charlie is.
There are some very dark moments in this book, extraordinary cruelty and brutality, yet all presented in a way that older children can definitely manage — this is very much a middle grade book. I noticed someone writing that she planned to read it aloud to her 5th graders. I would be cautious with this, be mindful of the listeners — who they are, their own lives, and how this could make them feel. I see it as for those ready for this harsh history lesson, say 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.
There are also some warm moments, Curtis’s trademark humor, and description. I feel that I can recognize his style when he describes the slave catcher’s rankness, a train ride for a boy who has never been on one, and the pain of enslaved people being retaken and separated. Most of all, there is the strength and power of the Canadians — whites and blacks together.
This feels like a book of the moment, a #blacklivesmatter for the 19th century and today. Outstanding.