The path of contemporary children’s literature is strewn with worthy novels intended to teach and preach that mostly fail to ignite any response. Great and tragic events – such as war, famine, or genocide – can make for stilted writing that is hobbled by the need to respect the victims. How extraordinarily lucky we are, then, to have Christopher Paul Curtis, who charms us with tall-tale extravagance, tickles us with rowdy humour, rivets us with piercing emotional truths, and brings history alive with jolting immediacy.
Curtis first blazed onto the literary scene with The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, which scooped a Newbery honour and the Coretta Scott King Award. His second novel, Bud, Not Buddy, richly deserved its Newbery Medal and Curtis’s second Coretta Scott King Award. Born in Michigan but now a longtime Windsor-based Canadian, Curtis writes prose that radiates enough energy and warmth to leap borders and melt boundaries.
In his latest novel, Elijah of Buxton, Curtis introduces us to an 11-year-old hero – loquacious, quick-witted, comically confident, and touchingly emotional – who was the first child born free in Buxton, a Canadian farming village of escaped slaves, just across the border from Detroit. Through Elijah’s coming-of-age adventures, we become familiar with a remarkable community, and this thriving village makes us understand the deep and solemn meaning of freedom. In this industrious settlement, Elijah and his friends are conscientiously raised to be free and responsible: they do serious chores, attend lengthy church services, are taught Latin by a strict teacher, and are drilled in manners and respect for all adults, including the ones with strange ways. As Elijah’s pa teaches him, “Don’t no-one get out of America without some terrible cost, without having something bad done permanent to them.”
Elijah’s parents want him to become less emotionally vulnerable and gullible, strength and wariness being essential qualities for a black child growing up next door to the slave-owning United States. Elijah himself struggles to understand the adult world and its contradictory rules, with results ranging from the hilarious to the heartbreaking.
In fact, while most young adult novels focus narrowly on teens’ relationships with their peer groups, with adults relegated to derisory bit parts, Elijah’s story is the opposite: it is through his entanglements with adults that this engaging boy makes strides toward taking his place in the world. He lets himself get conned by a fast-talking “preacher” who almost sells him to a circus. He faithfully does chores in the stable, catches fish to share with neighbours, and works clearing land with the silent Mr. Leroy, from whom he learns the terrible impact of using the “n” word. Fetching mail from Chatham, he joins in the solemn task of taking bad news to a woman who has waited years for her husband to escape and join her – a scene that is immensely moving in evoking a community that understands grief all too well.
The novel’s most gripping scenes are those in which Elijah comes closest to encountering slavery firsthand. In one instance, Elijah, his pa, and his best friend Cooter are working in the fields. Suddenly, Elijah spots newly escaped slaves hiding in the forest, terrified to emerge. The Buxton settlers immediately move into a well-rehearsed charade, pretending not to see the escapees, while a little girl saunters closer and closer to the hidden family until she’s near enough to reassure them and coax them into the open. The escapees’ emotional reaction to freedom is so heart-wrenching in its depth of feeling that the reader is startled, only a paragraph later, to be tipped into a gust of laughter at one of Elijah’s ingenuous outbursts. It’s Curtis’s genius to bring us simultaneously to open-hearted tears and empathetic laughter.
The novel’s pièce de resistance is Elijah’s trip to Detroit, accompanying Mr. Leroy on a desperate mission to “buy back” Leroy’s wife and daughter. Elijah runs up against treachery, betrayal, and death. The sheer horror of the scene in which he meets recaptured runaways, chained in a barn and nearly dead from abuse, is the climax of his education into adult realities. Elijah’s attempted rescue of the slaves could easily have descended into melodrama, but by focusing on his shocked and frantic reactions, Curtis keeps it stunningly believable.
Elijah’s development, from a credulous child who gets “all afeared and shakit-y” to a young man who has absorbed his parents’ courage, ethics, and optimism, is both persuasive and compulsively readable. No young reader’s understanding of Canadian history will be complete without Christopher Paul Curtis’s latest wonder.