by Tim Tingle, Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges
Cinco Puntos Press
There is a river called Bok Chitto that cuts through Mississippi. In the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears, Bok Chitto was a boundary. On one side of the river lived the Choctaws. On the other side lived the plantation owners and their slaves. If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free; the slave owner could not follow. That was the law.
Martha Tom, a young Choctaw girl, knows better than to cross the river, but one day—in search of blackberries—she disobeys her mother and finds herself on the other side. Thus begins the story about seven slaves who cross the big river to freedom, led by a Choctaw angel walking on water!
Crossing Bok Chitto will be an eye-opener for kids and adults alike. It documents a part of history that is little-known: the relationship between the Choctaws—members of a sovereign nation—and the slaves who lived in Mississippi during that time before the Civil War, before the Choctaws were forced out of Mississippi to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
In an essay at the back of Crossing Bok Chitto, Tim Tingle says:
“Crossing Bok Chitto is a tribute to the Indians of every nation who aided the runaway people of bondage. Crossing Bok Chitto is an Indian book and documented the Indian way, told and told again and then passed on by uncles and grandmothers. In this new format, this book way of telling, Crossing Bok Chitto is for both the Indian and the non-Indian. We Indians need to know and embrace our past. Non-Indians should know the sweet and secret fire, as secret as the stones, that drives the Indian heart and keeps us so determined that our way, a way of respect for others and the land we live on, will prevail.”
In a picture book that highlights rarely discussed intersections between Native Americans in the South and African Americans in bondage, a noted Choctaw storyteller and Cherokee artist join forces with stirring results. Set “in the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears,” and told in the lulling rhythms of oral history, the tale opens with a Mississippi Choctaw girl who strays across the Bok Chitto River into the world of Southern plantations, where she befriends a slave boy and his family.
When trouble comes, the desperate runaways flee to freedom, helped by their own fierce desire (which renders them invisible to their pursuers) and by the Choctaws’ secret route across the river. In her first paintings for a picture book, Bridges conveys the humanity and resilience of both peoples in forceful acrylics, frequently centering on dignified figures standing erect before moody landscapes. Sophisticated endnotes about Choctaw history and storytelling traditions don’t clarify whether Tingle’s tale is original or retold, but this oversight won’t affect the story’s powerful impact on young readers, especially when presented alongside existing slave-escape fantasies such as Virginia Hamiltons’s /The People Could Fly /(2004) and Julius Lester’s /The Old African /(2005).