Who was Elijah?
Elijah was the first free black Canadian child born in the village of Buxton, a real settlement of runaway slaves who gained their freedom in Canada. One reviewer suggested that we not tell children this is historical fiction.
“Tell them it is about an eleven-year-old boy who runs away from home and sneaks into another country to right a wrong he feels is his fault.” PDXbibliophile.
Don’t All Children Want to Run Away Sometimes?
Christopher Paul Curtis, the author of Elijah of Buxton, knocked this masterpiece out of the ballpark earning the Newberry Honor and five other awards. Even though this is a children’s book, adults will enjoy and learn from it as well. What did you learn about the life of the slaves after Harriet Tubman led them to freedom?
Christopher Paul Curtis takes readers to the lowest depths of man’s inhumanity and then returns them to the path of hope and resilience. He captures the child’s voice and experience flawlessly. Curtis will have you feeling you are that young boy growing up as the first free black Canadian child – no different from any other child you know.
The innocence and naiveté of Elijah of Buxton lead readers through a gamut of feelings; joy and tragedy, sorrow and guffaws, spirits soaring then guts wrenching.
“‘I was a shining bacon of light for the future.’ … Don’t seem to me that getting called a piece of meat off a pig is anything that you should get excited ’bout… I throwed up everything I’d et all over Mr. Douglass’s beard and jacket…. They say I near drownded the man.”
Life for Freed Slaves After the Underground Railroad
Elijah’s parents made it to Canada and lived in a village with other freed slaves. They had the first free black Canadian child in the village. Elijah Freeman and his friends in the 1850s enjoyed the privileges of freedom without realizing the price their parents paid for it. They played kidnappers and slavers without the slightest idea of what that meant. He had the freedom to express his emotions without fear. His parents teased and rebuked him “to break him of being a fra gile child,” a cry baby.
Elijah had a hard time convincing anyone, even himself, that he was ready to be a man, and it worried him. To the reader, he often seemed a little slow to catch on. As a teacher, I wanted to shake some sense into him when he fell AGAIN for the sleazy preacher’s tricks.
“You knew there was something was off about him, Elijah. Why didn’t you stop and THINK? Why didn’t you talk to your parents?” I wanted to shout at him.
But Elijah did not hear me. Even after falling prey to his schemes, Elijah still trusted that the preacher would not run off with a woman’s life savings given to a Mr. Leroy to buy back his family out of slavery.
From the point of the attempted purchase of a family out of slavery, the story moved in a straight line to the catastrophes that followed, as this young man had to overcome the atrocities of human injustice.
How Would You Use This Book In the Classroom?
As a fourth grade teacher of English learners, at first glance through the book, I worried about the use of dialect and the changed spelling. It didn’t take me long to change my mind about the colorful language. As a teacher or parent, I would read this book aloud with second language learners, and possibly even with regular readers who would simply enjoy the cadence of hearing it read aloud.
The book offers many teachable moments in an elementary classroom. For example, Elijah pointed out that the use of exaggeration was prevalent in the slave community, and it is an excellent writing technique as well. The integration of literature with social studies connects at any level 3-8th grade.
Curtis created picturesque settings, with which students could do a variety of Google Maps activities. The book tackles a wide array of issues that might catch a young reader off-guard. For example, Elijah stumbles upon a hornet’s nest of human nature when he used the n-word around a former slave. The usually taciturn Mr. Leroy gave a swift and furious response.
Bullying, cyber bullying, and name calling are widespread problems in schools. This incident speaks to kids today without the discussion being contrived. Most students study slavery and the Underground Railroad, and this book provides a glimpse of what happened next.
I could not put this book down, and I don’t think you will either.
About the Author
“Born in Flint, Michigan, Christopher Paul Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint’s historic Fisher Body Plant # 1. His job entailed hanging car doors, and it left him with an aversion to getting into and out of large automobiles–particularly big Buicks.
With grandfathers like Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, it is easy to see why Christopher Paul Curtis was destined to become an entertainer.” Amazon author’s page
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