Thursday, February 7, 2008

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah's claim to fame is that he was the first child born free in Buxton, a town established by escaped slaves in Canada. People in Buxton also freely remember him as the baby who threw up everything he ever ate on the famous Mr. Frederick Douglass. Either way, he's well known in the community.

Now eleven, Elijah deals with normal eleven year old situations like school, friends, trouble, listening to the wrong people, and girls. But Elijah (and readers) also learns about slavery, freedom and its value, and respecting his and his community's history. And difficult lessons are sometimes learned through difficult situations.

The book is full of laugh-out-loud funny parts. One favorite is when Cooter, Elijah's eager but sometimes misguided friend, sees "Familiarity Breeds Contempt" printed on the blackboard before class. Using problem solving skills of which all teachers would surely be proud, he accesses his prior knowledge, looks at word parts, and deciphers this yet unknown phrase. His understanding? "Family Breeding Contest." Imagine being eleven and going to class knowing this was the topic of the day!

At the same time readers are exposed to the seriousness of slavery. Elijah encounters captured runaway slaves, shackled to a barn wall, awaiting their return to the south - a trip they don't plan to make. The runaways' torment and anguish over what is to come is clearly evident to older readers. Younger readers, along with Elijah, will learn more slowly, and may not truly understand all of what their future holds. But Elijah understands enough to help. His heart is gold. He does what he can. Through this experience and other related ones, Elijah begins to understand more and more about freedom and its cost.

Like Curtis's The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963, Elijah of Buxton is the the tale of two books. As readers are drawn into the story by is humor they may miss the foreshadows of the seriousness to come. Eager readers may leave school laughing at hoop snakes but return the next day confused and angry over Elijah's trip to the circus or encounter with the captured runaways. It is for this reason only that this truly exceptional book does not receive my highest recommendation. (For more information see My Soapbox.)

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