Seeing slavery through the eyes of a child
2008 Newbery Honor Book
One day, award winning-author Christopher Paul Curtis, who makes his home in Windsor, Ontario, drove past a sign that read Buxton 5 kilometers. The name of Buxton rang a bell it was the site of a 19th-century settlement for freemen and escaped slaves. Curtis, who had long considered writing about slavery, realized that in Buxton he had discovered the setting for his new novel, Elijah of Buxton.
Curtis, who loves to do school visits and enjoys teasing the kids, burst onto the writing scene in 1995 with the Newbery Honor book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, which he describes as one of those last-ditch efforts where you close your eyes and put everything you have into the ultimate do-or-die effort. Before The Watsons was published, Curtis spent 13 years on the assembly line at the Fisher Body Flint Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan, where he grew up. Now a sought-after and powerful speaker, Curtis recalls, "I had just been turned down for a promotion to become a customer service representative at the company because I was told, ”We don't think you're quite ready to speak to the public.'" Perhaps because The Watsons changed his life and enabled him to write full-time, it has always been this author's favorite book. "In my eyes it would take a very, very special book to displace The Watsons from the number one position on my list of favorites," he says. Enter Elijah of Buxton.
Curtis explains, "I had always wanted to write a book about slavery but the conditions were so horrible I couldn't imagine writing from that point of view. Setting it in Buxton allowed me to approach it from the periphery, through the eyes of Elijah Freeman, the first free child born in the settlement, who sees the community through his parents' eyes." While the characters in the novel are fictional, Buxton was and is a real place in Ontario, some 200 miles northeast of Detroit. The settlement was founded in 1849 by an abolitionist, the Rev. William King, and it became the most successful planned settlement for the fugitives of slavery in Canada, with a population of more than 1,000 in the 1850s. The community still exists today, peopled by descendants of those first fugitives, and was recognized as a National Historic Site by the government of Canada in 1999.
The hero of the book is Elijah, an endearing 11-year-old who loves to fish and much prefers riding the community's mule, Old Flapjack, to the horse, Jingle Boy. ("Most folks say it's wrong, but if I had my druthers, I'd ride a mule over a horse any day. Horses do too much shaking of your insides when you ride 'em and they're a long way up if you lose your grip and fall.")Most of all, Elijah struggles to overcome being fra-gile. ("I try not to be fra-gile by sucking down the looseness and sloppiness in my nose when they come and by not screaming and running off at the littlest nonsense. . . .") He also works hard to understand the secret language of grown-ups. Bout the only thing I could say for sure is that being growned don't make a whole lot of sense, he muses. Elijah's struggle to sort through the mysterious labyrinth of what growned folks do and say is amusing and, ultimately, heartbreakingly poignant.
Through Elijah, readers get a glimpse of the tremendous burdens the members of the community carry with them from lives spent in slavery, and the heartbreak of being separated from loved ones still enslaved. When Mr. Leroy has the chance to try to buy freedom for his wife and children, Elijah comes face to face with the realities of slavery and the role that greed and fear play in the adult world that sometimes seems to swirl around him.
"I wrote the last chapter first," explains Curtis, who says he never outlines his novels but prefers to be surprised. In the end, Elijah does break through to understanding, or as he says, the meaning on the back side of words. While he cannot make everything right, Elijah finds the courage to act on his realization to save a life. Curtis has many warm memories of his own childhood, playing with his siblings and just being a kid. And perhaps it is this strong connection with being a child that allows him to convey Elijah's struggles so vividly for young readers.
"I love Toni Morrison's Beloved," Curtis says. "She approaches a nearly impossible subject from the periphery." And like Morrison's masterpiece, Elijah of Buxton is sure to become a classic for readers of all ages.
Deborah Hopkinson is the author of Up Before Daybreak: Cotton and People in America, which was recently named a Carter G. Woodson Award Honor book.