Review of the Day: Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
Before I begin I’d just like to make the note that this is a review from the Advanced Reader Copy of this book. My copy does not have the final text that will appear in the Author’s Note (a fact that makes me rather sad) and some of the quotes I include may change before the publication proper.
The Author’s Note of “Elijah of Buxton” begins with a statement on the part of author Christopher Paul Curtis declaring that when you ask authors what their favorite published work is, they’ll generally hem and haw and refuse to select just one title. Not Mr. Curtis. Unlike these writers, he has no qualms about selecting the book he has always loved the most (it’s “The Watsons go to Birmingham”, in case you were curious). Now ask a librarian what their favorite Christopher Paul Curtis title is. Go on. The answer is going to be interesting. Some might play the hem and haw game, but many will burst out with their favorites without hesitation. “The Watsons Go to Birmingham”! “Bud Not Buddy”! “Mr. Chickee’s Funny Monkey”! One or two brave souls might even select his teen novel on the sly. Not me, of course. My favorite Curtis novel is “Elijah of Buxton “, no question. And when I am old and grey I will claim that it was my favorite right from the start, publication dates be damned. To my mind “Elijah” is an example of everything Curtis does well. His historical research is superior. His characters heartwarming. His prose funny and heart-wrenching in turns. Plus, any book where a character is famous for having upchucked onto Frederick Douglass when he was a baby is worth its weight in gold. Be prepared to meet your favorite Christopher Paul Curtis book as well.
Elijah Freeman’s known for two things. First and foremost, he was the first child born free in the Elgin Settlement at Raleigh in Canada West (better known as Buxton). Second, when he was a baby he barfed all over the great Frederick Douglass. That’s the kind of stuff no one ever lets you forget when you grow up in a town as small as Buxton. Populated entirely by escaped slaves and their children in 1860, Buxton residents make it their business to help new arrivals any way they can. Described as “fragile” because he cries easily, Elijah has a hard time convincing anyone that he’s ready to be a man. But that’s before Mr. Leroy, his friend, gets enough money to buy his family. Before he trusts that money to the slick-talking preacher in town. Before the preacher disappears with the money somewhere in Michigan and Mr. Leroy wants Elijah to come with him to track the double-crosser down. And before Elijah must puzzle through and come to terms with a decision that means life or death.
When it comes to writing, doff your hat to Mr. Curtis. The history of Buxton was what really hooked me from the start. As the Author’s Note in the back points out, Buxton was a real place and it thrived and survived beautifully. Economically self-sustaining with an enviable school system, the place was practically custom made for a children’s novel. And the more I learned about the place, the more I wanted to learn. I wouldn’t be shocked if next year we see a crop of fine Buxton-related non-fiction children’s titles sweeping the marketplace. As for Curtis’s subject matter, not only does he go in for great settings, Curtis tackles a wide array of issues that might catch you off-guard. When Elijah uses the n-word around a former slave (and his superior) the response is swift and furious. The piece undoubtedly is speaking as much to Elijah as it is to kids today, but when a discussion of this sort fits the story and doesn ’t feel hammered into place, you don’t have to label it as necessarily didactic. Elijah’s such an interesting character too. On the one hand, he’s just your average eleven-year-old troublemaker. And sometimes (probably more often for the adult reader, than for the child) he’s a little more dense than you’d like. How often does one meet a heroic and not entirely with it hero, though?
I also enjoyed the little observations slipped within the text that come up with situations that are immediately understandable. Things like, “I learnt a long time ago that when you’re smelling something real good, you only get two or three first-place smells of it afore your nose won’t take no more notice.” Words and language play an important part in the book. For example, a particularly frightening doll owned by a fellow student is labeled “terrorific ” in Elijah’s eyes. Best of all, there’s humor, as seen when discussing the aptitude many former slaves have for storytelling and exaggeration. Elijah mentions that, “They’ll tell you I throwed up on Mr. Douglass for a whole half a hour afore Ma come and snatched me away and pointed me out the schoolhouse window. They say I near drownded the man.” I’d write more but it gets kind of gross after that point. “Elijah” kind of reminded me of those old Robert Peck “Soup” books. Same mischief and confusion. Same high spirits and fun. The section where poor Cooter (Elijah’s best friend) comes to believe that the day’s lesson “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” is going to be dirty has all the markings of a classic.
One person I spoke to about “Elijah” mentioned that the book hopped about from story to story too much for her tastes. She didn’t feel that Curtis had created an adequate linear narrative, choosing instead to leapfrog between incidents and occurrences. To my mind this was a very purposeful move on Curtis’s part. The first half of the book (at least) does indeed show a variety of different interactions and happenstances between the residents of the town and Elijah. Then, as you grow to know them, you better understand the final thrust of the novel. From page 181 or so onward, the book’s plot becomes less flexible and more straightforward. I would argue that you need the fun early chapters, in part because they contain small details and incidents that grow in importance as you continue to read the story. They also happen to make the book fun and interesting right from the start. Jump into the seriousness that marks the latter half early on and you end up playing your hand too soon, scaring off potential readers.
This is the story of a boy becoming a man, no question about it. Its perspective is really the reason to read it, though. Says Curtis in his Author’s Note, “I had always wanted to write a book about slavery but the subject was far too daunting, especially for a novel written in the first person.” It’s difficult for anyone living today to try and understand the enormity of such imprisonment. By making a freeborn resident of Buxton his hero, then, Curtis creates a kid in the same situation (to some extent) as children today. Elijah has just as much difficulty conceiving of the nature of slavery as we would. He and his friends pretend to be slavers and abolitionists (no one wants to ever be the slavers) but it isn’t until he sees people physically bound in chains that the horror hits home. There’s a scene of Elijah confronting some slaves that takes the story to another level. Because this is Christopher Paul Curtis we’re dealing with, we only see the aftereffects of extreme violence. It’s enough.
Age level? Hard to say. Until page 305 (out of a 340-some page book) I’d have said 9 and up. You know what? I still say it. You can’t sugarcoat slavery. You can’t make it cute and cuddly and dumb it down for kids. Curtis’s story goes dark, but never so far that it’s inappropriate. It’s just so that it makes the full impact of what it means to imprison another human being clear.
Of course, no Christopher Paul Curtis book is complete without some mention of Flint, Michigan. Finding the mention in one of his stories is like a literary equivalent of “Where’s Waldo?”. And sure enough there’s one quick reference to it, before the focus turns to Detroit and Canada. Curtis is as consistent in this as he is in producing quality children’s literature that’s a heckuva lot of fun. “Elijah of Buxton” stands to grow in popularity and presence. A great book and well deserving of any buzz it happens to achieve.
Notes on the Cover: I dunno, guys. I just don’t know. I’ve heard people speak in favor of this cover and I certainly hear where it is that they are coming from. I do. But to me, this is a cover with a self-published air. This is not to say that I don’t still enjoy the art of illustrator Carlyn Beccia. I’m a fan, no question. Her Who Put the B in the Ballyhoo? is loads of fun. But I don’t like the full-frontal face of Elijah. It’s hard to pinpoint what I don’t like about it. Maybe it’s the expression. The Elijah I picture wouldn’t look quite so blankly at the viewer. I suppose the point here is that you can read what you want out of his face, but somehow this doesn’t grab me. Informal studies show that kids gravitate towards books with children’s faces on the cover. And many would point out that there’s something permanent and alluring about a painted cover versus a simple photographed one. Still, this is not one of my favorites this year. I also feel like one of the elements gives away a plot point (but I suppose that’s only if you’re looking for it). One will get you twenty that when this book is ready for the paperback edition they’ll replace the cover image with a photograph of a boy anyway (probably sepia-toned). We shall see.
Other Reviews: Richie’s Picks.
For More Information: Particularly on Buxton, check out the Buxton National Historic Site.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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