This is the story of a boy becoming a man, no question about it. Its perspective is really the reason to read it, though. Says Curtis in his Author’s Note, “I had always wanted to write a book about slavery but the subject was far too daunting, especially for a novel written in the first person.” It’s difficult for anyone living today to try and understand the enormity of such imprisonment. By making a freeborn resident of Buxton his hero, then, Curtis creates a kid in the same situation (to some extent) as children today. Elijah has just as much difficulty conceiving of the nature of slavery as we would. He and his friends pretend to be slavers and abolitionists (no one wants to ever be the slavers) but it isn’t until he sees people physically bound in chains that the horror hits home. There’s a scene of Elijah confronting some slaves that takes the story to another level. Because this is Christopher Paul Curtis we’re dealing with, we only see the aftereffects of extreme violence. It’s enough.
Age level? Hard to say. Until page 305 (out of a 340-some page book) I’d have said 9 and up. You know what? I still say it. You can’t sugarcoat slavery. You can’t make it cute and cuddly and dumb it down for kids. Curtis’s story goes dark, but never so far that it’s inappropriate. It’s just so that it makes the full impact of what it means to imprison another human being clear.
Of course, no Christopher Paul Curtis book is complete without some mention of Flint, Michigan. Finding the mention in one of his stories is like a literary equivalent of “Where’s Waldo?”. And sure enough there’s one quick reference to it, before the focus turns to Detroit and Canada. Curtis is as consistent in this as he is in producing quality children’s literature that’s a heckuva lot of fun. “Elijah of Buxton” stands to grow in popularity and presence. A great book and well deserving of any buzz it happens to achieve.
Notes on the Cover: I dunno, guys. I just don’t know. I’ve heard people speak in favor of this cover and I certainly hear where it is that they are coming from. I do. But to me, this is a cover with a self-published air. This is not to say that I don’t still enjoy the art of illustrator Carlyn Beccia. I’m a fan, no question. Her Who Put the B in the Ballyhoo? is loads of fun. But I don’t like the full-frontal face of Elijah. It’s hard to pinpoint what I don’t like about it. Maybe it’s the expression. The Elijah I picture wouldn’t look quite so blankly at the viewer. I suppose the point here is that you can read what you want out of his face, but somehow this doesn’t grab me. Informal studies show that kids gravitate towards books with children’s faces on the cover. And many would point out that there’s something permanent and alluring about a painted cover versus a simple photographed one. Still, this is not one of my favorites this year. I also feel like one of the elements gives away a plot point (but I suppose that’s only if you’re looking for it). One will get you twenty that when this book is ready for the paperback edition they’ll replace the cover image with a photograph of a boy anyway (probably sepia-toned). We shall see.
Other Reviews: Richie’s Picks.
For More Information: Particularly on Buxton, check out the Buxton National Historic Site.