Elijah is the first child born into the town of Buxton, Canada, a community of free blacks and escaped slaves. He’s been sheltered from the realities of slavery because of his “fragile” nature, which he is often teased about. As we follow Elijah through his adventures escaping from snakes and chunking stones, he tries to prove to his parents that he’s growing up. Hi new strength prods him to face his fears in order to help others gain their freedom.
It’s nice to see Christopher Paul Curtis return to historical fiction, don’t get me wrong, his other novels are fun, but teachers across the country applaud The Watsons go to Burmingham and Bud, Not Buddy because they manage to teach about history through really funny, endearing, male main characters between the ages of nine and eleven. So yes, Curtis published ANOTHER historical fiction novel narrated by a young, black male; but this novel still manages to be fresh and original. How does he do that?
This book does contain some violence, but it would hard to portray slavery without it. The other matter some teachers are having a hard time with is Elijah’s dialect. I recently attended a book talk where the speaker brought the debate about dialect up and said that some teachers are worried that it will be too difficult for some young readers who might otherwise enjoy this book. She questioned whether or not it’s too much and I can see where she’s coming from.
I think Curtis really deserves some praise for the gentle ways he explains how slaves must have felt when they escaped. It provided some really beautiful interesting moments in the book. Elijah explains that escaped slaves who reach Buxton alone and are spotted hiding in the forest have to be approached very carefully. Elijah says:
“Even if they ain’t seeing no white people they still caint bring theirselves to show who they are. We learnt a long time ago to make no big commotion when we first seen ‘em. We learnt that all the running they’d been doing, all the looking their shoulders and not knowing when they were gonna eat again or where they were gonna sleep or who they could trust made ‘em skittish and even dangerous and not likely to take to no one running at ‘em. Not even if you were smiling and waving and showing how happy you were that they got through. Afore you’d reach ‘em they’d just melt back into the woods and you’d be standing there wondering if you’d really seen anything atall. If a bunch of us went charging at ‘em whooping and raising Cain they might disappear back into the forest for another two, three days. And that was two, three days that they were free but didn’t know it, which Pa says is tragical ‘cause you ain’t never gonna know how much time you got here on earth and each day you’re free is precious.”
Wow! They end up sending a young girl wandering the way of newcomers so they don’t feel threatened and run away. I think that’s really eye-opening.
There’s just so much in this book that I never thought about and I learned from. Like instead of playing cops and robbers or Indians and cowboys, the kids in Buxton played abolitionists and slavers. Another instance is when Elijah mentions his friend’s grandmother is about 50 so she’s so old and frail they are afraid to leave her alone even a moment. And any kid who ever even thinks about using the N word should read what happens when Elijah almost says it; Mr. Leroy explodes and explains what it means and why it should NEVER be used. He says, “Ya’ll young folks gotta understand that’s a name what ain’t never called with nothing but hate . . . You saying that word aitn’t showing no respect for no one what’s had that word spit on ‘em whilst they’s getting beat on like a animal.” Elijah’s father later goes on to tell him that he needs to be especially careful around people who used to be slaves because, “They’ve seen people acting in ways that caint help but leave scars and pecularities.”
And without spoiling anything, this book didn’t end the way that I wanted it to, but it ended the way that it had to. Anyone who picks it up will really learn a lot from it.