Sunday, February 22, 2009

Elijah of Buxton

My choice for Canada Reads is Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007) by Christopher Paul Curtis. This book isn't on the official 2009 list, but I predict that it will be someday. It's the kind of book that will attract a growing audience.

It came into our house through the unlikeliest of ways: through a school promotion/sale. My wife ordered it. I started reading it as a bedtime story to my eight-year-old step-son. Soon we understood, however, that this isn't a typical book for kids.

I'm going to give away the entire plot, so be forewarned.

The narrator is 11-year-old Elijah, who lives in Buxton, Upper Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves near Windsor, Ontario. Elijah is the first child born in the settlement; "born free," which makes him magical, figuratively speaking.

Buxton is a real place. An author's note at the back of the book points readers to Legacy to Buxton by A.C. Robbins for more information.

The story takes place in 1856. Elijah is on the cusp of youth and some deep learning about the wider world. The early chapters are light in tone, as readers follow Elijah to school, to the fishing hole and out and about with his friends, playing tricks. He is Huck Finn-esque (a juxtaposition that suggests many avenues to be explored). We learn that Elijah is considered "fragile;" but as post-moderns we know he's just sensitive, smart and a little on the anxious side.

This is a book that provides added meanings when read aloud. The language is rich with southern twang and a local vernacular. My eight-year-old thought it was great, lively, funny, though he did grow tired of it: "Read it with your normal voice," he said eventually. But I couldn't read it with a flat, Toronto, 21st century accent. It's not written that way.

As the story moves along, it takes on ominous tones, though we remain within Elijah's point of view. Some new escaped slaves arrive. Some slavers are said to be nearby, seeking to repatriate their "property." One woman receives a letter informing her that her husband was whipped to death after being caught escaping. This is a pivotal point, because she gives the gold she was saving to buy her husband's freedom to a neighbour, so he can purchase the freedom of his wife and children.

At this point, my step-son had had enough. He didn't want to read any more, but he wanted to know what happened. Page by page, it was too stressful for him.

Here's how it ends. One of the men entrusted with taking the gold across to the USA to buy the freedom of the wife and children turns sour. He gambles the money away and shoots his partner. The partner returns to Buxton. The man who expected to see his freed family kidnaps Elijah (because he can read) and takes off in search of his lost gold and the traitor.

Then he has a heart attack and dies, leaving Elijah to fend for himself.

Armed only with the name of someone in Michigan he believes he can trust, Elijah asks for help finding the lost gold, but he's told to go home. He's also told to avoid a certain barn, which of course he heads straight towards. Inside the barn, he finds the traitor lynched and four adult slaves, naked and shackled -- one a woman with a baby.

To make a long story short, Elijah takes the baby home with him. It's the best he can do, in the end. And he learns, he says, what it means to be "growed."


The author's biography on the Random House website says:

Born in Flint, Michigan, Christopher Paul Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint’s historic Fisher Body Plant #1. His job entailed hanging car doors, and it left him with an aversion to getting into and out of large automobiles—particularly big Buicks.

Curtis’s writing—and his dedication to it—has been greatly influenced by his family members, particularly his wife, Kaysandra. With grandfathers like Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, it is easy to see why Christopher Paul Curtis was destined to become an entertainer.

Entertaining Elijah of Buxton certainly is, but it's much more than that, too.

It's not just topical, historical, relevant, or regionally significant. It's probably the best written children's book I've read (and I've read a lot lately). Read it to be entertained; read it to learn; but read it first for being a good book; a strong story, well told. An instant classic.

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