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ELIJAH OF BUXTON

Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 7 months ago

06 May 2007 ELIJAH OF BUXTON by Christopher Paul Curtis, Scholastic Press, October 2007, ISBN: 978-0-439-02344-3

 

"Many a mile to freedom, many a smile to tell"

-- Steve Winwood

 

"When he was 'bout twenty paces from us the man turned Emma's hand a-loose, pulled off his hat, and called to Pa, 'Pardon me, sir. The child right? This here really Buxton?'

" 'Morning. Yes, sir, it is, and y'all's really free!'

"The man brung his hand from behind his back. He was clutching on to a long, shiny knife!

"He looked at it then back at Pa and it seemed like he was fixing to cry.

"He turned the knife so's he was hanging on to the blade and said, 'I's terrible sorry 'bout this here dagger,sir, but...' He wiped his eyes. 'but we's so tired of running, we's come so...' He couldn't talk no more.

"Pa walked right up to him and wrapped his arms around the man and said, 'Don't say nothing more, brother, I know. I know it ain't been easy but you found where you're supposed to be. You're home.' "

 

Enslavement is a form of terrorism. To gain a true sense of how bad it would have been to be a slave in America, it takes a powerful imagination.

 

"Near everybody but me was giggling and clowning and thinking this was something good, but I knowed growned folks waren't going to call off school 'less something powerful bad was 'bout to happen or had happened already. And why was Mrs. Guest sending all the white children and the Indian children right off like that?

"I quick looked out the window to the west and saw the sky was blue and sunshiny. That meant waren't no bad weather coming. That meant it was something worst, something dealing with people.

"Another knock came on the door and Mr. Brown stucked his head in and said, 'Ready?' "

 

Fortunately, Christopher Paul Curtis has a powerful imagination. And, fortunately, Christopher Paul Curtis has the knack for leavening his stories with humor so that young readers can gain an appreciation of dark historical realities through an employment of contrasts -- the goofy versus the gripping -- and still come away inspired and hopeful that a young person can make a difference in the world.

 

Elijah is the first freeborn child in the Canadian settlement of Buxton, a land of promise for those who have escaped via the Underground Railroad. Buxton is a Black community of former slaves that really did exist, as detailed in the author's end notes. Curtis began speaking enthusiastically about this writing project years ago, after learning some facts about the settlement which was located near where he lives in Windsor, Ontario. It sure is exciting to see it finally coming into print.

 

"I knowed if I was a fish I'd've looked at it different. If I saw one of my fish friends go after a fly and all the sudden he was floating on the water not moving and had a big knot on his head, I think my appetite would leave me. And even if it didn't, I sure would've have no enthusiasm for the next horsefly that showed up in the water. I'd've been smart enough to put one and one together and would have choosed something off the bottom of the lake for supper. "But I suppose if you're partial to swallowing horseflies whole it's a pretty good sign that smartness ain't one of the things you been 'specially blessed with."

 

One aspect of Curtis's writing that has made his stories so popular are the great guy relationships. In THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM, 1963, you have the somewhat-gullible Kenny, his certified juvenile delinquent brother Byron and the sidekick, Buphead. In BUCKING THE SARGE you have Luther T. Farrell and his sidekick Sparky. Here you have the sometimes gullible, sometimes exceptionally perceptive Elijah, and his sidekick Cooter.

 

"I ain't trying to be disrespectful 'bout my best friend, but there're lots of things that Cooter sees as being mysterious that most folks understand real easy."

 

And then you have the story's most enigmatic character, the preacher, the Right Reverend Deacon Doctor Zephariah Connerly the Third. This is a guy who can con Elijah with stories of "hoopsnakes" (who grab their tails in their mouths and go rolling full speed after potential victims), and can persuade the young man that tithing a share of the fish Elijah catches (by beaning them with skillfully thrown rocks) involves the preacher's calculating the ages of each fish and then making off with the supposedly younger half of them. This is the same preacher who can then employ a pair of pistols to forcibly liberate a young performer in a traveling carnival whom Elijah determines through conversation to actually be a slave who had been purchased by the carnival owner.

 

There are so many great stories about the Underground Railroad, but you rarely hear what happens to the people once they become free. The Author's Note explains how the founder of the real-world Black settlement at Buxton "felt there was a need for a very strict set of rules by which the newly freed people would govern themselves." It would be interesting to read this book in conjunction with THE GIVER with its Community.

 

That Elijah is a child born free, as opposed to the former slaves around him, puts him in the position to have a new perspective on things while also benefiting from the wisdom and experience of his elders. Readers might well consider how they don't have to be shackled to the assumptions of their parent's and grandparents' generations.

 

Richie Partington

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/

BudNotBuddy@aol.com

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