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Crossing Bok Chitto

Booklist 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
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).
The New York Times
“Crossing Bok Chitto,” by Tim Tingle, a story teller and folklorist, tells a tale with a happier ending, but its journey is no less a departure from the narrative of American uplift. In Mississippi, a Choctaw girl and a black slave boy join forces when his mother is sold: he knows how to become invisible to whites, she knows how to cross the river to escape them. They do not go north, to be with the enlightened white abolitionists. Instead, his family disappears into the fog — illustrated with a symbolic, almost Japanese simplicity, by Jeanne Rorex Bridges — and out of American bondage.

“In stories or in life, trouble comes,” Tingle writes; in literature for children, this is a lesson as old as the Grimms. But these realities cut deeper than any fantasy. Even young children recognize the Wicked Stepmother as an archetype. Will the children who read these books recognize the white people in them as the white people in their lives or in their own families?
Children’s Books: New York Times Book Review, August 12, 2006
By Simon Rodberg

MALIAN’S SONG By Marge Bruchac Illustrated by William Maughan. Unpaged. The Vermont Folklife Center. $16.95. (Ages 6 to 10)
CROSSING BOK CHITTO A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom By Tim Tingle. Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. Unpaged. Cinco Puntos Press. $17.95. (Ages 8 to 12)
THE OLD AFRICAN By Julius Lester Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. 79pp. Dial Books. $19.99. (Ages 9 and up)

In the elementary classroom, at least, multiculturalism has succeeded. Schoolchildren now learn about the American journey as the coming-together of diverse cultures, with not just Pilgrims but Native Americans and Africans and, more recently, Latinos and Asians walking along the national trail. Even in this updated version, ours is a triumphalist travelogue: from slavery to freedom; from poverty to riches; e pluribus, unum. Sure, the new children’s literature suggests, we have our problems, but eventually we gather everyone with us into the future.

Three new children’s books radically challenge this myth, with alternative narratives and alternative dreams. In each, the journey of escape leads not into a bright American future, but out of an American nightmare. As a slave puts it in “The Old African ” (2005), by Julius Lester, “I don’t know what’s in Africa, but I sho’ know what’s here. . . . I believe I’ll take a chance on what I don’t know rather than to keep on living with what I do.” This is the classic voice of the American immigrant, reversed.

Unlike the multicultural mythos of America, these brilliant books are not feel-good, not melting-pot optimistic. They are as difficult as the real histories they tell, and they insist not only on diversity but on difference. They force parents and teachers to confront just how harsh a truth we can teach our children.

Marge Bruchac’s “Malian’s Song,” set in an Abenaki village in Canada in the 18th century, starts with the Native American idyll beloved by the 60’s generation (and their children). William Maughan’s lush palette illustrates Abenaki folkways, from catching fish to a breakfast of corn porridge, dried blue berries and maple sugar. The book feels almost “ by the shores of Gitche Gumee” — until “the White Devil” appears. “Awanagiak, strangers,” warns a scout, “come at dawn . . . burn village!” Flames obscure the moon: the English soldiers have arrived. Malian, an Abenaki girl, flees into the night, and sings, “I am lonesome; I am lonesome. . . . There is no friend anywhere.” This true story, about a 1759 attack north of Montreal, shows the other side of our multicultural history: a violent taking, not a joining.

“Crossing Bok Chitto,” by Tim Tingle, a story teller and folklorist, tells a tale with a happier ending, but its journey is no less a departure from the narrative of American uplift. In Mississippi, a Choctaw girl and a black slave boy join forces when his mother is sold: he knows how to become invisible to whites, she knows how to cross the river to escape them. They do not go north, to be with the enlightened white abolitionists. Instead, his family disappears into the fog — illustrated with a symbolic, almost Japanese simplicity, by Jeanne Rorex Bridges — and out of American bondage.

“In stories or in life, trouble comes,” Tingle writes; in literature for children, this is a lesson as old as the Grimms. But these realities cut deeper than any fantasy. Even young children recognize the Wicked Stepmother as an archetype. Will the children who read these books recognize the white people in them as the white people in their lives or in their own families?

The hero of “The Old African” thinks the skin of slave traders is “white like sorrow.” The traders remind newly captured men of “Mwene Puto, the Lord of the Dead, who was the color of bones.” The book’s first words convey fierce anger at the horrors of history. “The boy’s wrists were tied so that his arms hugged the trunk of the large oak tree. His face was pressed against it as if it were the bosom of the mother he had never known. His back glistened red with blood. Whack!”

“The Old African” depicts the brutality of the slave trade with stunning effect. Jerry Pinkney’s emotion-filled illustrations match the honesty of Julius Lester’s text; the hold of the slave ship, with dozens of emaciated, twisted bodies crammed into the page, is as horrifying as painting can be. The journey to America is a descent into hell.

These books reject the idea that there is one American history, or even several compatible stories. The Old African never says a word on American shores. “You can only talk if there is someone who understands,” he thinks. “No one in this new place could. Then how could he speak?” This incompatibility will pain both liberal multiculturalists and conservative unifiers.

The story we now teach our children is of American openness, of possibility in variety. At the school where I work, almost all the students are black or Latino and poor. We assign research papers on black mathematicians and hold assemblies for Hispanic Heritage Month , and tell students: “This country is yours, too.” If history is meant to hold lessons for living, these children’s books offer a more complex moral, and hope, for personal and cultural survival. Strikingly, each book ends with an afterword of closely printed text, the story behind the story. “Malian’s Song” turns out to stem from Abenaki elders and their descendants who refused “to live in fear. . . . They are finally speaking the truth about the past, and sharing their knowledge with anyone who is willing to listen.” In “Crossing Bok Chitto,” Tim Tingle writes, “We do not deny that darkness exists, but we chose to walk in light . . . as long as our stories are told, we can be Choctaw forever.”

These authors connect the traumas of the past to the telling of those traumas without compromise. The Old African learns “how to hold the hurting in a heart so it would not break, how to keep the living alive — and the dead too.” These stories ask the same of us.
- August 31, 2006 
Publisher's Weekly 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
Bridges, a Cherokee artist making her children’s book debut, joins Tingle (Walking the Choctaw Road) in a moving and wholly original story about the intersection of cultures. The river Bok Chitto divides the Choctaw nation from the plantations of Mississippi. “If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free,” writes Tingle. “The slave owner could not follow. That was the law.” But Bok Chitto holds a secret: a rock pathway that lies just below the surface of the water. “Only the Choctaws knew it was there, for the Choctaws had built it,” Tingle explains. When a slave boy and his family are befriended by a Choctaw girl, the pathway becomes part of an ingenious plan that enables the slaves to cross the river to freedom—in plain view of a band of slave hunters during a full moon.

Bridges creates mural-like paintings with a rock-solid spirituality and stripped-down graphic sensibility, the ideal match for the down-to-earth cadences and poetic drama of the text. Many of the illustrations serve essentially as portraits, and they’re utterly mesmerizing—strong, solid figures gaze squarely out of the frame, beseeching readers to listen, empathize and wonder.
- March 13, 2006 
Midwest Book Review 5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars5 Stars
A celebration of diversity, acceptance, and unity

Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale Of Friendship And Freedom, by Tim Tingle and featuring illustrations by Jeanne Rorex Bridges is the inspiring tale of Martha Tom, a young Choctaw girl. Following Martha Tom through her pursuit of blackberries in the deep forest, Crossing Bok Chitto will captivate young readers with vivid and colorful pictures as the young Native American girl stumbles upon a forbidden slave church and befriends one of its members. A welcome addition to school and community library picturebook collections, Crossing Bok Chitto is very highly recommended for all young readers as a celebration of diversity, acceptance, and unity in a remarkable production of expert authorship and invaluable illustrations.
- July 14, 2006 
Children's Literature
Box Chitto is the river that cuts through Mississippi and serves as the boundary between the Choctaw Indian nation and the plantation owners and their slaves. Martha Tom, a Choctaw girl, is sent to pick blackberries. Her quest for blackberries leads her to cross Box Chitto. She knows of a stone path just beneath the river's surface. As she discovers blackberries, she also discovers another people living in the woods--the slaves. Little Mo, a slave boy, leads Martha Tom back to the river and learns of her stone path; the two become good friends. When Little Mo's mother is sold and the family fears separation, Little Mo realizes he can help by using the stone path that Martha Tom has shown him. The other Choctaw Indians help lead Little Mo's family across Bok Chitto and keep the guards away by appearing as ghosts. Tom Tingle, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, tells a very moving story about friends helping each other and reveals a lesser-known part of American History: Native Americans helped runaway slaves. The muted and soft illustrations done by Jeanne Rorex Bridges, a Cherokee ancestor, fit the story's time and place, particularly the river's muddiness. The notes at the end also provide useful information to learn more about the Native Americans in history and the background of the story. While, this is a picture book; it would make a wonderful read-aloud for middle elementary students.
School Library Journal
Dramatic, quiet, and warming, this is a story of friendship across cultures in 1800s Mississippi. While searching for blackberries, Martha Tom, a young Choctaw, breaks her village's rules against crossing the Bok Chitto. She meets and becomes friends with the slaves on the plantation on the other side of the river, and later helps a family escape across it to freedom when they hear that the mother is to be sold. Tingle is a performing storyteller, and his text has the rhythm and grace of that oral tradition. It will be easily and effectively read aloud. The paintings are dark and solemn, and the artist has done a wonderful job of depicting all of the characters as individuals, with many of them looking out of the page right at readers. The layout is well designed for groups as the images are large and easily seen from a distance. There is a note on modern Choctaw culture, and one on the development of this particular work. This is a lovely story, beautifully illustrated, though the ending requires a somewhat large leap of the imagination.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
Choctaw storyteller Tingle draws on bits and pieces of songs, traditional stories, and local histories to craft this legend of Native Americans helping African-Americans slaves to freedom. Martha Tom, a Choctaw girl, lives by the banks of Bok Chitto, a river in Mississippi that separates plantation land from Choctaw territory. If a slave can cross Bok Chitto, he or she is free by law, and the slave owner cannot follow. Disobeying her mother’s rule not to cross the river, Martha Tom traverses via a subsurface stone path and on the other side comes across a forbidden slave church meeting where she meets and befriends Little Mo, a boy who helps her find her way back to the river. Bonds between Martha Tom and Little Mo grow as Martha Tom attends the slave church services, and when Little Mo’s mother is sold, Little Mo enlists aid from the Choctaw. When the Choctaw women, carrying candles and wearing their white wedding dresses, step into the river, their angelic appearance causes the slave-hunters to held their fire as they watch Little Mo’s family walk, apparently on the water itself, to freedom.

Native artist Jeanne Rorex Bridges’ tranquil images of sienna-hued landscapes and people are imbued with an ethereal serenity undergirded by a fierce determination. She reveals character and emotional quality through full-frontal portraits that beckon readers to empathize through their imploring expressions. Although the story has a legendary quality, young readers will appreciate the explanation of the reality, both in words and pictures, behind what appeared to the white folk as a mystical event. A brief note on the contemporary Choctaw nation and a longer one on Choctaw storytelling follow the text.
Multicultural Review
"Crossing Bok Chitto is an awesome story of survival, generosity, courage, kindness and love; enhanced by Jeanne Rorex Bridges’ luminous acrylic on watercolor board paintings on a subdued palette of mostly browns and greens."

Crossing Bok Chitto, originally one of the stories in Tingle’s excellent collection, Walking the Choctaw Road, is now a picture book.

In the early 1800s, Mississippi’s Bok Chitto River was a boundary, dividing the home of the sovereign Choctaw Nation from the “Old South” of plantation owners and their human property. Enslaved Black people who were able to get to the Choctaw side of Bok Chitto were free. According to the story, the Choctaws built a stone path just below the muddy surface of Bok Chitto—built it up in times of flooding and built it down in times of drought. It is this unseen stone path, and the generosity of a Choctaw family, that aids an enslaved Black family to cross to freedom.

When her momma asks Martha Tom to fill her basket with blackberries for an upcoming wedding, the little girl crosses Bok Chitto, loses her way, and encounters the calling together of a Black church secreted in the Mississippi woods. After an enslaved Black father instructs his young son how to move among the white people without being seen—“not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!”—Little Mo escorts Martha Tom past the plantation house and back to the river, where she shows him how to cross. The relationship between the two children and their respective families deepens, and when trouble comes—“it always does, in stories or in life, trouble comes”—magic is made, and the Black family is empowered to cross to freedom.

Crossing Bok Chitto is an awesome story of survival, generosity, courage, kindness and love; enhanced by Jeanne Rorex Bridges’ luminous acrylic on watercolor board paintings on a subdued palette of mostly browns and greens. In an endnote, Tingle describes how this particular story came to be. Today, Choctaw families—as well as Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole—continue to tell the stories of how they aided the “runaway people of bondage.”
Sapulpa Daily Herald
Artist features talents as illustrator in new book


Oklahoma artist Jeanne Rorex Bridges never thought that she would be a storybook illustrator. That is, until she was presented with a project that spoke to her on an artistic, historical and personal level.

“I always said I’d never do illustration,” Rorex Bridges said. “I didn’t think I could paint in the style that I thought the books needed. But this was such a great story, and really hit my fancy. I decided not to pass it up.”

The story that inspired Rorex Bridges is the written interpretation of a Choctaw folk tale by Oklahoma native and award-winning writer and folklorist Tim Tingle called “Crossing Bok Chitto.” It is a tale about the little-known historical relationship between the Choctaw Nation and the slaves who lived in Mississippi in the time before the Civil War. The story revolves around the friendship of a Choctaw girl named Martha Tom and a family of slaves that live on the other side of the Bok Chitto River. On the west side of the river, the Choctaw nation lived in freedom. On the east side of the river, plantation owners ruled the land and kept slaves. But the law of the time was that if a slave could cross the wide Bok Chitto river, they were free.

In “Crossing Bok Chitto,” the Choctaws had built a secret stone path through the river, just below the surface of the water. It is this secret bridge that connects Martha Tom with her friend Little Mo and his family and becomes part of a daring plan to escape after Little Mo’s mother is sold to a plantation in New Orleans.

What spoke to Rorex Bridges about this story was the connection between the Choctaw Nation and the African slaves, a subject matter that she frequently explores in her art.

“I have many paintings that deal with the relationship between the native people and the freedmen. There are so many mixed blood people out there, but often times they feel like they aren’t allowed to claim the other half of their heritage. I’ve had an overwhelming response from people about my paintings of native people and former slaves working and living together. They often don’t see their heritage in artwork.”

Rorex Bridges traces her own family ancestry back to the Cherokee tribe and has always felt a deep connection to Native American art. She currently resides in the hills of rural northeastern Oklahoma on part of the land on which she was raised, where she runs a successful art business with her husband, James Bridges. Rorex Bridges has made a name for herself nationally with her Native American-inspired artwork and many of her pieces can be found in museums and private art collections nationwide. And while the subject of the story lent itself perfectly to Rorex Bridge’s style of art, she was also was also drawn to the themes within “Crossing Bok Chitto.”

“I love to paint about human relationships and emotions, and it was those things about the story that drew me to it,” Rorex Bridges said. “The story also has a universal message about friendship, and the protection that a parent feels for their child that anyone can understand.”

Rorex Bridges’ signature portrait style of artwork with strong lines and rich earth tones perfectly complement Tingle’s story, which is written in the style of native storytelling, complete with traditional Choctaw songs.
- May 3, 2006 
El Paso Scene

“Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom” by Tim Tingle. Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. This story of a young Choctaw girl who helps a slave family gain freedom by crossing the title river takes place before the Civil War and Trail of Tears. With both Tingle and Bridges having Indian heritage, the poetic words and meaningful pictures introduce young readers to some aspects of everyday Choctaw life, including their wedding ritual and even engineering techniques. Both of these details actually aid in gaining freedom for the slave family. Although this story takes place in the Deep South, it has plenty with which border residents can relate: the struggles and relationships between races and nations, a river that leads to freedom and self-reliance. The publisher even includes a brief account of today’s Choctaw Nation. Readers will soon discover it is about much more -- faith. As one slave family learns, faith in their family, faith in the help of friends and soon-to-be friends, and faith in the power of a greater good can overcome any boundary or bond.

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