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'Crossing Bok Chitto'

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[DEC. 6, 2006]  "Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom," by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges, Cinco Puntos Press, 2006, 34 pages, ages 6-11

Review by
Louella Moreland

Before the words were written down, stories of courage and faith were told around the fires of home and community. "Crossing Bok Chitto" is such a story, handed down over the generations from old to young. Told in the traditional Native American way, illustrated by a Native American artist, this book is a gift to the spirit of freedom and friendship.

Set in Mississippi before the start of the Civil War, the river Bok Chitto separated the land of the Choctaw and the land of the plantation owners. The law at that time declared that any slave who escaped and crossed the river would be free. But the river was deep and muddy with no bridges or fords.

A young Choctaw girl by the name of Martha Tom knew how to cross the Bok Chitto on a secret stone path. The Choctaw kept the bridge secret, raising and lowering the stones so that the bridge always remained beneath the surface of the muddy water.

One day Martha Tom became lost after crossing the river to pick blackberries and stumbled upon a clearing where slaves met to hold forbidden church services. She was deeply moved by the music the slaves sang and did not notice the large man who discovered her hiding in the bushes. He sent his son, Little Mo, to show Martha Tom back to the river and how to move "invisibly" so that the plantation men would not notice them. Through the next few years, Martha Tom and Little Mo began a friendship that bonded the slaves and Choctaw one special, dark night.

One day, it was announced that Little Mo's mother was to be sold at a slave auction. The family was desperate to stay together. Little Mo came up with a risky and daring plan: The family would walk past the plantation men the way his father had taught and cross the river on the Choctaw stone bridge. Men with guns and dogs would be hunting them. Little Mo had never crossed the river at night. Would the Choctaw help them? You will have to read the book to find the answer.

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This is a story that the Choctaw still tell today. They tell of the bravery of a little girl named Martha Tom and the faith of a little boy named Moses. The white people tell the tale as well -- the night seven spirits walked on water to their freedom.

Mr. Tingle captured the essence of this moving story using language that seems more music than words. It is the language of a storyteller, one who shares a story heart-to-heart with an audience, making the telling a special magic that lingers on long after the last word is spoken.

Ms. Bridges has beautifully depicted the characters and situations of the story. Double-page spreads in warm, earthy tones enclose the words as though lending them the comfort of a blanket. Although a nationally known artist, this is her first attempt at illustrating a book. We sincerely hope to see more of her work in the future.

Notes on the Choctaw nation today and Choctaw storytelling are included at the end of the story.

"Crossing the Bok Chitto" will appeal to many people in a diversity of ways: as a history of pre-Civil War America, an African-American or Native American story, or just a quiet story to share between a parent and child. Please don't overlook this story as just another picture book. It is so much more than that. Let its music touch your heart in this holiday season.

To check out this book or others about the era or people, visit us at the Lincoln Public Library, 725 Pekin St. And of course, we have more traditional seasonal tales as well!

[Louella Moreland, youth services librarian, Lincoln Public Library District]

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