I finished the rest of Elijah of Buxton in one afternoon! The plotline really picked up and I immediately became immersed in the action and detail.
The vivid descriptions really drew me into the novel. When Curtis describes the “music” of Mr. Leroy’s ax, “crack! CHUH, hoong, ka, crack! CHUH, hoong, ka, crack! CHUH, hoong, ka!” (p. 75) I could almost hear the sounds in my head.
I didn’t realize how much humor Christopher Paul Curtis included in this novel. Since the story is a narrative of an 11-year old boy, Elijah’s naivety and occasional misconceptions are hilarious. Elijah charmingly recounts the story of how he threw up on Frederick Douglass as a baby, and when he and Cooter made the mistake of thinking their teacher was going to have a Family Breeding Contest, when the blackboard really said, “Familiarity Breeds Contempt.” I found myself laughing out loud at his endearing foolishness. I could sometimes even identify with some of Elijah’s comments, such as the “sermons go on so long that some of the time you feel like begging, ‘Take me now, Jesus,’ bout halfway though ‘em” (p. 202). His brutal honesty made the novel even more charming.
But the book wasn’t all comical. There were somber moments, such as when Ma recounted her experience as a slave and how she had to leave her mother to escape to Canada. I really did find myself tearing up at some scenes… Elijah probably would have called me “fra-gile.” But these moments were broken up by little bits of insight courtesy of Elijah himself:
This was another one of those confusions that got me wondering if I’d ever have sense enough to be growned. ‘Bout the only thing I could say for sure is that being growned don’t make a whole lot of sense. Maybe that’s why it takes so long for you to grow up, maybe enough time’s gotta go by for all the sense to get worned right out of you (p. 179).
Sometimes the most touching views on life come from the eyes of children. Authors can write volumes about issues like slavery, but it seems to mean so much more when the questions are posed by children who have a fresh outlook on the world around them. In one of the most poignant scenes of the novel, Elijah is looking from Detroit back over to Canada. He thinks to himself,
“I ain’t disputing that I’m a whole lot smarter than most other children who’re near ‘bout twelve years old, but I couldn’t for anything see how come a river made so much difference. How could one side of the river mean you were free and the other side mean you were a slave? When you looked at the trees in Canada and the trees in America they seemed to be the same tress, like they could’ve come out of one seed. Same with the rocks and the houses and the horses and everything else that I could compare, but the growned folks could see big differences that waren’t plain to me” (p. 278).
This comment really made me stop and think. I know that it would be a great starting point for some great classroom discussions, and it would allow child readers to ask important questions themselves. I would use this book as an introduction to a unit on slavery and allow my students to use it as inspiration for personal narrative exercises. There are so many different ways to go with this book. I am so glad I didn’t abandon this book after the first chapter and allowed myself a chance to get into it.