Say Pink With Hope and Honor

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco

To remember is to pay tribute.

Paying tribute to an unheralded hero is what Patricia Polacco's book Pink and Say is all about. It is a stark reminder that most heroes never make the limelight and their heroics may be seen by only one or two or none at all.

Pink and Say is a heart-wrenching picture book that tells a difficult tale, a true story from the Civil War. It is a story that is part of Polacco's family's oral history. She is the great-great granddaughter of Sheldon Russell Curtis, known as Say in the book.

The story opens with 15-year-old Say lying wounded on a Georgia battlefield. He is rescued by Pinkus Aylee, called Pink, who drags Say to Pink's mother's home where the two of them are able to recover from their wounds.

Say, a white, freckle-faced Union soldier, quickly bonds with Pink and his mother, whom he describes as mahogany skinned. Both Pink and his mother are former slaves who still bear their master's last name. Pink, also around 15 years old, fought with the Colored Division of the Union Army, fighting against what he called the "sickness" of slavery. In their respite from the war, Say is nurtured by the courage of Pink and the love of his mother, Moe Moe Bay.

During this respite, we see that Pink is eager to return to his unit-and to get away from the house lest they attract Confederate marauders who might harm his mother. He calls the war "his" fight, even when the generals first deny his units any firearms. Pink proudly shows Say that he is able to read, a skill his master taught him despite the laws against it. When Say suggests that perhaps his master was a "good" one, Pink insists that the master was more bad than good and taught him to read merely because the master liked to have someone to read to him.

Say draws courage from Pink and Moe Moe-courage enough to admit that he had been deserting when he was shot-and agrees to return with Pink to his unit. Before they can get away, the story of friendship and hope turns violent and tragic. Marauders appear and kill Moe Moe Bay who had hidden the boys in her cellar. Then, as the boys set out to try to find their units, they are captured by soldiers and sent to Andersonville prison. Pinkus is hung within hours of arriving at the camp and his body was thrown into a lime pit. Say survives, though he is only 78 pounds by the time he is released.

It is this dark ending that one Amazon reviewer objected to. He was outraged by the violence and exhorted parents to object to their principals if it was being read to their children in school. He thought they should demand that it be removed from the school curriculum. I'm afraid he misses the point. It is, after all, a true story. In these days of war and violence, I would find it far more objectionable if my child's school tried to sanitize war and make out that heroes were only those with happy endings. I would be far more angry if they tried to pretend that war was not filled with horror and that values were free and easy rather than bolstered by dear and heavy prices.

Yes, this is a difficult story. Yes, there is violence in it. It is painful to see the enemies have such a casual disregard for lives that we've come to cherish. But the story is also one of courage, valor, and real, deep love. It is a story of values that illustrates why sacrifice is important and necessary.

It is the type of story that has instilled me with such a great affection for Patricia Polacco's stories. I appreciate an author who respects children so much that she trusts them with difficult topics. She doesn't give them Disneyfied versions of fairy tales. Instead, she paints pictures of the world that the children live in and shows courageous choices made by children throughout history.

That being said, I'd hesitate to put an age range on this book. I'm not sure that age is relevant. Rather I think that any parent or teacher sharing this book needs to know the children he or she is working with. It is certainly a book that can be shared with grade school students, but I would encourage it to be a shared experience-one in which the adult either reads the book or is present at the reading. It is a book that invites discussion.

Also, while younger children will find the story compelling, there are many words on each spread. It might be a challenge for very early readers, though anyone advanced enough to read early chapter books are likely to be able to handle Pink and Say.

Each page of Pink and Say is covered with splashes of Polacco's very distinctive watercolor style. The colors are earthier and grittier than some of her other tales, but they are well chosen to communicate her themes.

While Pink takes great pride in his ability to read, Say's claim to fame is that he once shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln. It is this contact that best illustrates the theme of hope running through the story. Both of the Aylees reach out to touch the hand that touched the hand of the man who symbolized the hope for a better nation. It is a hope that continues as the author tells us how she touched the hand of the hand of the hand of the hand that touched Lincoln.

On the final page, Polacco asks us to say Pinkus Aylee's name aloud and to remember him as he has no descendants to do it for him. In so doing, Pink and Say doesn't just honor one person. In paying tribute to Pinkus, she also pays tributes to all of the brave boys who died namelessly fighting their war.

--B. Redman