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. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #6
The story of the Underground Railroad, which led escaping slaves to Canada, has been richly celebrated in fiction. But what happened after they arrived? In Elijah's story we visit the community of Buxton, a refuge for freed slaves established in 1849 in Canada West, close to the American border. Eleven-year-old Elijah, the first child to be born free in the settlement, is an irresistible character. Ebullient and compassionate, he is a talker who can torture a metaphor until it begs for mercy. Opening chapters lull and delight us with small-town pranks and tall tales. The mood gets chillier when a new family of fugitives arrives. Elijah relates how his Pa explains their fragility: "Don't no one get out of America without paying some terrible cost, without having something bad done permanent to 'em, without having something cut off of 'em or burnt into 'em or et up inside of 'em." When a con man takes off with the funds Elijah's friend Mr. Leroy saved to buy his family out of slavery, Elijah and Mr. Leroy pursue the thief across the border to Michigan; and there, while hiding out in a barn, Elijah discovers a small group of captured slaves, shackled to the wall, barely alive. There is no easy happy ending here, but, in a heart-rending scene, Elijah reacts with courtesy, courage, and respect, according the wretched their dignity and giving them the one gift of freedom in his power. This arresting, surprising novel of reluctant heroism is about nothing less than nobility. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 August #2
Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is known for two things: being the first child born free in Buxton, Canada, and throwing up on the great Frederick Douglass. It's 1859, in Buxton, a settlement for slaves making it to freedom in Canada, a setting so thoroughly evoked, with characters so real, that readers will live the story, not just read it. This is not a zip-ahead-and-see-what-happens-next novel. It's for settling into and savoring the rich, masterful storytelling, for getting to know Elijah, Cooter and the Preacher, for laughing at stories of hoop snakes, toady-frogs and fish-head chunking and crying when Leroy finally gets money to buy back his wife and children, but has the money stolen. Then Elijah journeys to America and risks his life to do what's right. This is Curtis's best novel yet, and no doubt many readers, young and old, will finish and say, "This is one of the best books I have ever read." (author's note) (Fiction. 9+) Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Media Connection Reviews 2008 January
Award winner Christopher Paul Curtis doesn't fail to deliver with his latest novel. Eleven-year-old Elijah is the first child born free in the Canadian town of Buxton. Elijah's character is crafted believably yet with trademark humor, as he learns powerful lessons regarding respect and freedom on his journey to adulthood. Elijah finds himself on an adventure to help Mr. Leroy try to recover money meant to buy his family out of slavery. They journey to Michigan in search of the thief known as the Preacher. When Mr. Leroy dies, Elijah promises him that he will find the Preacher and recover the money. He finds not only the Preacher, who's already dead, but also runaway slaves. Money lost, Elijah tries to help the runaway slaves escape their bondage. Touching dialogue between them reveals that this is not possible; however, he does save a baby as he returns to Buxton. Curtis deals with the difficult topic of slavery from a youthful perspective, allowing Elijah to learn of its sadness and pain first hand. This is done without overwhelming the reader, by infusing the novel with humor. Character development and voice are great strengths of this terrific novel. Highly Recommended. Spencer Korson, Media Specialist, Bullock Creek High School & Middle School, Midland, Michigan Â© 2008 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 September #2
Elijah Freeman, 11, has two claims to fame. He was the first child "born free" to former slaves in Buxton, a (real) haven established in 1849 in Canada by an American abolitionist. The rest of his celebrity, Elijah reports in his folksy vernacular, stems from a "tragical" event. When Frederick Douglass, the "famousest, smartest man who ever escaped from slavery," visited Buxton, he held baby Elijah aloft, declaring him a "shining bacon of light and hope," tossing him up and down until the jostled baby threw up--on Douglass. The arresting historical setting and physical comedy signal classic Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy ), but while Elijah's boyish voice represents the Newbery Medalist at his finest, the story unspools at so leisurely a pace that kids might easily lose interest. Readers meet Buxton's citizens, people who have known great cruelty and yet are uncommonly polite and welcoming to strangers. Humor abounds: Elijah's best friend puzzles over the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" and decides it's about sexual reproduction. There's a rapscallion of a villain in the Right Reverend Deacon Doctor Zephariah Connerly the Third, a smart-talking preacher no one trusts, and, after 200 pages, a riveting plot: Zephariah makes off with a fortune meant to buy a family of slaves their freedom. Curtis brings the story full-circle, demonstrating how Elijah the "fra-gile" child has become sturdy, capable of stealing across the border in pursuit of the crooked preacher, and strong enough to withstand a confrontation with the horrors of slavery. The powerful ending is violent and unsettling, yet also manages to be uplifting. Ages 9-12. (Oct.)[Page 61]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Gr 4-8-- Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman has two claims to fame: he was the first free black to have been born in Buxton, an actual settlement in Canada established in 1849 by the abolitionist Reverend William King; and, during his infancy, he threw up all over the visiting Frederick Douglass. Elijah is an engaging protagonist, and whether he is completing his chores or lamenting his Latin studies or experiencing his first traveling carnival, his descriptions are full of charm and wonder. Although his colloquial language may prove challenging for some readers, it brings an authenticity and richness to the story that is well worth the extra effort that it might require. While some of the neighbors believe Elijah to be rather simple, and even his mother tends to overprotect her "fra-gile" boy, his true character shines out when a disaster occurs in the close community. Elijah's neighbor, Mr. Leroy, has been saving money for years to buy freedom for his wife and children who are still in the U.S. When this money is stolen, Elijah blames himself for inadvertently helping the thief and, risking capture by slave catchers, crosses the border into Detroit to get it back. His guileless recounting of the people he meets and the horrors he sees will allow readers to understand the dangers of the Underground Railroad without being overwhelmed by them. Elijah's decisions along the way are not easy ones, but ultimately lead to a satisfying conclusion. Curtis's talent for dealing with painful periods of history with grace and sensitivity is as strong as ever.--Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA[Page 146]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.