Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Review: Elijah of Buxton

by Christopher Paul Curtis. Scholastic Press, 2007. 2008 Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award. It took me a couple weeks to finish this book. It starts out kind of slow, with the easy charm of an afternoon fishing on the river. Elijah is a twelve year old boy living in the free Black colony of Buxton, Canada, just across the river from Detroit. It is the mid 1860's and Elijah is the first free born member of the community. He is a bit of a rascal, putting toady-frogs in his mother's knitting basket and complaining about his Sunday School teacher. He is also a sensitive boy, what his mother calls "frag-ile". He can't help bursting into tears or running in terror at snakes or the sight of grown-ups crying. He is desperate to prove himself grown. I enjoyed the story so far alright, but it didn't grab me. I put it aside for a few nights to read something else.

I almost abandoned it. Then I read a review at book, book, book which blew me away. She had exactly the same reaction to the first third of the book. She kept reading and found the heart of the story to be powerful and intense. She says,
"I've been thinking about why it took him so long: the book is 341 pages, and the real plot doesn't get rolling until page 181, and only kicks into high gear around 270. That's about 2/3 of the book spent on setup and back story and voice. Curtis's voice is compelling enough, and his characters are strong enough, that he can carry it off, but why does he?"


The thing is, once you get really comfortable with Elijah and his family and friends rolling along living their lives, you start to forget about what they really lived with. It takes a few incidents like when Elijah has to take a letter to Mrs. Holton, a woman who escaped slavery but left her husband behind. She's saving her money, and he's working towards buying his freedom, when they get a letter from his mistress down south. Elijah knows the letter written in the white woman's handwriting is the absolute worst kind of news as soon as he sees it come from the post office. Since most of the adults can't read it is his job to deliver it and read it aloud. When his parents see the letter in his hand they know the contents too. As they walk toward Mrs. Holton's house all the women of the town begin to come along. Elijah starts to feel "frag-ile". Curtis writes:
"Mostly I think I didn't bawl 'cause once Ma and them women bunched up 'round Mrs. Holton with their watching, waiting eyes and hands, it felt like a whole slew of soldiers was ringing that parlour with swords drawed and waren't no sorrow so powerful it could bust through."

Now it starts to hit you; what those adults have survived. What they know, that you don't know. What Elijah is coming to understand.

In another scene Elijah is walking with Mr. Leroy, a neighbor who is working long days to earn money to buy his wife and daughters out of slavery. He's telling a story about something that happened at school. Elijah starts to call himself and his schoolmates "little nigg-" When Mr. Leroy explodes with righteous anger. He smacks him so hard Elijah falls to the ground. Mr. Leroy cuts into him with a fury, shouting and slapping him.
"He shouted, "Is you out your mind?"
... He said, "What you think they call me whilst they was doing this?"
He opened the front of his shirt and showed me where a big square with a letter T in the middle of it was branded into him. The scar was raised up and shiny and was real plain to see even if there waren't no moonlight atall.
"What you think they call me?"

Three pages later Mr. Leroy has cooled down and shaken Elijah's hand in peace. Elijah has learned a lesson he will never forget and so have we. The story meanders a little more in gently rising hills of conflict, but we still haven't gone deep enough to get the full impact. It's not till the final five or six chapters that I started loosing sleep. I couldn't put it down.

Again, from the blogger book, book, book:
"It's not a new thing, to take a big historical event and make it human-sized. It's what every decent historical novel ever written has done. But I'm not sure how many people have done it by writing as little as possible about the elephant in the room until close to the last minute of the book."

Here is Curtis' genius. He has crafted a brilliant novel touching the deepest heart of our human condition. He's started with the surface, then gone on to shown us our beauty, our ugliness, and our potential. He is a master.

I don't want to give any spoilers here, if you haven't read it yet, but it is devastating. It involves shocking treachery, stolen money, murder, lynching, chained and beaten slaves, despair, hope, love stronger than death, and a mother giving her child to strangers to save her life. I try to imagine myself reading this out loud in school and I think I couldn't do it without crying. I couldn't lift my eyes off the page and look at the wide-eyed horror of a room full of ten year olds listening to this. Someone's got to do it though. This is something they've got to hear from someone who loves them.

Links:

Elijah of Buxton at B&N
Lindsay Foster's blog
Please Come Flying blog
Christopher Paul Curtis at the Brown Book Shelf
book, book, book
Buxton Museum website
Christopher Paul Curtis' R.E.A.D Program and Kenya School Project

7 comments:

bookbk said...

Thanks for this spot-on review, and for the link. It just occurred to me after reading your review that I'm so glad I read the book all the way through! I can just see myself reading halfway, then recommending it to a classroom teacher as a read-aloud on the strength of the wonderful first-person voice and the funny anecdotes. Boy, would that be a problem.

Josephine Cameron said...

You're right. I was surprised too, that the beginning of the book is so light and meandering. I think we need that to really get into the point of view of the child who is telling the story. Since he was born free, that other stuff, the deep heavy stuff, is only peripheral at first. It isn't a tangible part of his world until he encounters it on some very personal levels. He is growing as a person throughout the book...becoming aware of what is going on around him, and finding out that he has a part to play, that he has some responsibility in his community and world. It's a coming-of-age novel in the very best sense. What a gift!

Cloudscome said...

You are so right josephine! "Since he was born free, that other stuff, the deep heavy stuff, is only peripheral at first. It isn't a tangible part of his world until he encounters it on some very personal levels." This is what draws us in and allows us to become connected to the character. Because we live in freedom we can't understand the slave or ex-slave position without Elijah's growing understanding as a vehicle. Seen through his eyes the horror is that much sharper and intensely significant to us.

Monica Edinger said...

Really enjoyed and appreciated this review.

AMY S. said...

it would be really hard for me to get through several scenes of this book with my 11 and 12 year old students. the scenes you quoted and the ending, ripped me apart. i love toni morrison, but this book was even more devastating because Elijah is this innocent kid, who sees and starts to understand real horror, and it's how i feel about my students, sometimes. a deep sadness for the harshness of our history and cruelty of many parts of our world today, it's hard watching them learn about all the bad stuff.

at the end of this book i cried hard on my own, (and was stunned, that he really took us there) and i always cry more with my students.

i very much appreciate your take. thanks. and i think you're right. they need to hear this story.

Anonymous said...

my teacher is reading this book to my class, and at first i would just kind of space off, not really caring, but still barley listening. after a few days, reading about 2 or three chapters each day, i really started listening. so far it has been a really good book. we are around the part were Mr.Leroy carves a sign for Mrs.Holton about her husband being whipped to death. we are just about to read about the part where Mr.Leroy gets the $2200(or something like that), and it gets stolen

karen Simpson said...

I am reading this book to my fifth graders, I will admit to a few tears, but my children are INTO the book. I think this is an amazing piece of children's literature.