15 year old Union soldier Sheldon “Say” Curtis meets Pinkus “Pink” Aylee while Say is suffering from a leg wound. Pink and Say have both been separated from their units, and they make the decision to travel the three days they anticipate it will take to rejoin their units. Along the way, they return to Pink’s home and recover under the care of his mother Moe Moe Bay. The setting, a cozy cabin on the ruined estate of Pink and Moe Moe Bay’s former owner, creates an evocative backdrop for meaningful discussions about fear and bravery, the true nature of freedom and sacrifice.
In 48 short pages, Polacco writes a story with developed characters who discuss the deeper impact of the war, and challenge us readers to think about some of its enduring themes. There are many topics for family or classroom discussion.
Despite giving this book 5 stars, I do have a few concerns. The first, and probably most problematic, is the audience for this book. It is a picture book, but the topics discussed and the graphic nature of the illustrations, skew this older than the typical picture book audience of preschoolers to young elementary readers/listeners. Two of the most moving vignettes captured in the story are deaths--the first that of Moe Moe Bay at the hands of “marauders” who come looking to loot Pink’s family cabin, and then Pink’s death himself by hanging at Andersonville.
These topics are important to understanding the Civil War, and I do not advocate shying away from the difficult discussions. Knowing the true toll of war brings it from the realm of romanticism into reality. As Robert E. Lee said “It is good that war is so terrible--lest we grow too fond of it.” I do struggle, however, about the age appropriateness of this material. Amazon lists the appropriate age for this alternatively as: age 5-9; ages 6-9; Grade 4 (age 10) and up and Grade 1 (age 7) to Grade 4 (age 10). My best advice is for parents and teachers to read the book first to determine if your children or students are ready to handle the weighty discussions which will likely result from this book.
My final reservation is that the author claims this is a true story handed down through family history. This simply is not the case. A review of the regimental muster rolls for the 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Say’s regiment) does not show any soldier enlisted by the name of Sheldon Curtis (or alternative names that could have been the result of administrative error). Pinkus Aylee does not appear in the muster rolls of the 48th United States Colored Infantry. Further confirming the fictional nature of the story, according to each unit’s history, these two units never fought in the same battles.
The story is strong enough to stand on its own without the disclaimer that this is a true story handed down generation by generation. It is possible the author deliberately used this “true story” label disingenuously. It is equally possible that the author, like so many of us, just accepted family history as gospel truth because it came from the sincerest of her elders. Either way, the fact that it is fiction from someone’s imagination does not diminish its impact. Even knowing the truth, I end the story with tears in my eyes as I say out loud, “Pinkus Aylee.”
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.