Tingle, Tim. (2006). Crossing Bok Chitto. Ill. by Jeanne Rorex Bridges. El Paso, TX : Cinco Puntos Press.
2. PLOT SUMMARY
A girl from the Choctaw Nation named Martha Tom becomes friends with an African American enslaved boy named Little Mo. When the children have grown a little older, Little Mo’s family learns that his mother is to be sold off the next day. In desperation, he suggests they cross Bok Chitto and the family agrees. If a slave crosses Bok Chitto to the Choctaw side, that person is free. Martha Tom and her family agree to help. Little Mo’s family practice being invisible to the eyes of the white men with guns who are guarding their cabin and they cross the river. The plantation owner and his men see them as they are crossing, but before they shoot, they see the Choctaw women and Martha Tom, gliding to the river in their white ceremonial dresses, holding out their arms like angels. Because of the stones placed just below the surface of the water, it looks like they are walking on water, stunning all the men. The family crosses Bok Chitto with the help of Martha Tom’s family. There is a note at the end about Choctaws today and another explanation about Choctaw storytelling and how the author came up with the idea for this story.
3. CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Tim Tingle is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the story is based on a true story of how a group of Choctaw members used to help runaway slaves. Because Tim Tingle is Choctaw, he has a great deal of authority to tell “a Choctaw tale of friendship and freedom.” Illustrator Jeanne Rorex Bridges is of Cherokee ancestry.
The illustrations are stark and somewhat stylized. All groups of people are depicted with authentic skin tones and hair color. Many of the images are of people looking straight out of the pages, with a stern intensity of expression that shows the seriousness of the topic. On a two-page spread, one page shows Martha Tom’s portrait while the other page shows Little Mo. It deliberately compares and contrasts them—two children, both young, but one female, one male, one Choctaw, one black, both with the same expression on their face as they look out of the pages, so serious. It highlights how all humans struggle together and how we are not that different despite our appearances. The book is balanced, both with gender, but also by showing how a Native people group helped African-Americans, which is not often shown in children’s literature.
This book is a great example of a book that shows Native Americans in a leadership, hero role. Unfortunately, too many books about Native American culture still show indigenous people in need of rescue, often by white people. In this case, the Choctaw women help other people who have been oppressed by white people whose ancestors came from Europe. Additionally, “Stereotypical images of young children in headdresses, passive girls in long, black braids…” (Smolen and Oswald, 135) are not encouraged here. Martha Tom does have a long black braid down her back, but she is far from passive and not a single feather is visible in the illustrations. Martha Tom leads an entire family to freedom. Therefore, this book is a great addition to any classroom or home, because it shows Native Americans in a positive, proactive light that combats the many negative stereotypes still in children’s literature today. Our textbook says, “Tim Tingle’s Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom (2006), written as a tribute to the native peoples of every nation who aided runaway people of bondage, highlights the coming together of African Americans and Native Americans (Chocktaw) through the bravery of two young children fighting to free a family from slavery” (142). (Note that "Chocktaw" is an alternatively spelling to Choctaw.)
It is unclear whether this is an original Choctaw tale, but the end pages suggest that Tim Tingle made up this story. However, this is acceptable and is not “fakelore” (Vardell, notes) because he is not an outsider and he has done his research. It is based on truth, even if he added to it. The fact that a specific tribe is mentioned keeps this book from falling prey to the “pan-Indian” effect of generalizing all Native American people groups into one generic group, rather than celebrating the uniqueness of the over-500 different tribal groups (Vardell, n.p.).
The artist rendering of Martha Tom show her in a dress that looks much like a prairie settler’s dress, with a white apron-smock over her red dress, though moccasins are visible on her feet. There is a close up of Martha Tom and Little Mo first crossing the river for fun, and she has on simple moccasins without any beading and he is barefoot, which would be common for a young enslaved boy.
The plot requires a leap of imagination at the end when the slaves escape right in front of the plantation people, but the skill of moving without notice is mentioned previously in the book, “not too fast, not to slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!” and so ties the ending to the rest of the story. As well, at the conclusion of the story, Martha Tom sings a song of freedom that she learned from the forbidden slave church, but she sings it in Choctaw, giving authenticity to the story both by including interlingual use of Choctaw. It also is a concrete representation of the mingling of these two cultures that happened through their friendship. Martha Tom took what she learned from them, but made it her own through her own language. “Nitak ishtayo pikmano/Chissus ut minitit./Umala holitopama/Chihot aya laske!/We are bound for the Promised Land!” It is a very positive story of friendship and freedom, just as the subtitle says.
By including the short article, “Choctaws Today: Two Prosperous Nations, One Strong People,” Tingle makes sure readers are aware that the Choctaw are not “extinct,” but are contemporary members of American society as well. The image he selected to include shows a large group of Choctaw members, dressed in contemporary clothing with jeans and shorts. This sends a powerful message that helps fight the wrong idea that Native Americans were only “back then” in our history. No, they are very much alive and well today and Tim Tingle confirms that positive message as well.
4. REVIEW EXCERPT(S)
“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.”—School Library Journal, July 1, 2006.
“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."-- Publishers Weekly, March 13, 2006.
"Gr. 2-4. 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 Fly0 (2004) and Julius Lester's The Old African 0 (2005)"—Booklist, April 15, 2006.
Texas Bluebonnet Master Award List 1008-2009.
- Read books about the Choctaw Nation. Study the two different Choctaw Nations, comparing and contrasting what they share in common with what make up distinct differences.
- Read other books by Tim Tingle, such as When Turtle Grew Feathers: A Tale from the Choctaw Nation and Saltypie. Compare and contrast the stories or do an author study.
- Listen to Tingle’s book The Choctaw Way on audio, which tells the journey of the Choctaw people from the beginnings in Mississippi to modern Houston.
- Invite a member of the Choctaw Nation to come speak to the class, if possible.
- Read the book Escapes from Slavery, by Stephen Currie. Compare Little Mo’s family’s escape from slavery to the stories in this book.
6. PERSONAL REACTIONS
I really enjoyed the somber mood and tone of the book. I found the ending to be quite surprising, as there is nothing else in the book that would suggest this story would include mystical, mysterious events such as becoming invisible to the plantation’s men, but otherwise, I felt the positive message of the book and the power given to the young children in the story (who are the ones who save the family, really), make it a great book to have.
Currie, Stephen. (2003). Escapes from Slavery. Farmington Hills, MI: Cengage Gale.
Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed. (2011). Multicultural Literature and Response: Affirming Diverse Voices. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Tingle, Tim. (1997). The Choctaw Way, audio. Dripping Springs, TX: Storytribe Publishing.
Tingle, Tim. (2010). Saltypie. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.
Tingle, Tim. (2007). When Turtle Grew Feathers, audio. Atlanta, GA: August House Publishers, Inc.
Vardell, Sylvia. (2008). “Overview” Culture 4 Native Am Lit. Texas Woman’s University. Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults. Web. Accessed October 20, 2013.