Becky’s comment at DCR that “Elijah is about as perfect as a book can get”. Later when I saw the book featured at our school library I decided to find out what she meant. And I’m glad I did.
Elijah of Buxton is the story of an eleven year old boy living in community of freed slaves in Buxton, Canada. It’s told from his perspective in words that were appropriate for his age and time and place. I have to admit that reading a whole book written in slang was a stretch for me (I was an English major after all!), but it was well worth it. Rarely have I read a book with such laugh-out-loud-funny scenes that was at the same time so tender and poignant. (I cried like a baby over the final chapter and I NEVER do that.)
The author, Christopher Paul Curtis, does a masterful job of writing about a thriving community of freed slaves, all the while weaving in facts and stories about the horrors of what they went through before they were free. Chapter 11 has a powerful description of a family of runaway slaves that has just arrived:
Pa walked back over to the family and said the same thing we say to all the new-free folks when they first get to Buxton. It’s the way we greet ‘em into being free.
Pa pointed up and said, “Looky there! Look at that sky!” … “Ain’t that the grandest sky y’all ever seen?” Pa smiled and pointed out ‘cross the field. “Look at that land! Look at them trees! Has y’all seen anything that precious? It’s the land of the free!”… “Now look at you’selves! Look at ‘em babies! Has y’all ever looked this beautiful! Today be the first day don’t no one own y’all but y’all…. Today’ y’all’s truly set you’selves free!” Then he opened both his arms and said to the people, “And y’all chooosed the most beautifullest, most perfectest day for doing it!”
It was peculiar ‘cause it didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing or even if the sky was being ripped by lightning and thunder, we always tell the new folks that it was the most beautifullest, most perfectest day to get free. Far as I can tell, the weather didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. (p. 165)
Although its Newbery award (for excellence in children’s literature) was well deserved, don’t let that fool you into thinking this book is just for children. Adults have more to gain from it because their life experiences will enable them to empathize with the characters in a way that children cannot. I was deeply impressed by this book. The people are believable, the writing is exceptional, the setting is fascinating and the outcome is deeply satisfying. Thanks, Becky, for bringing it to my attention.