Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis. Grades 5 and up.
Elijah of Buxton is one of the books that has gotten heavy, heavy Newbery buzz this year. It's already won the 2008 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Mr. Curtis has won a Newbery and a Coretta Scott King Award for Bud, Not Buddy and a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor for The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. Elijah's been on many a Mock Newbery list and gotten tons of good reviews. To be honest, when a book or a movie has gotten that much buzz, I ready myself for disappointment. Everyone's raving about it and I can just tell that I'm going to be the one person in all of creation who didn't like it.
Not so with Elijah of Buxton. I loved it. Loved it.
From the first chapter, this book had me laughing out loud. Elijah's voice is real and instantly likeable. Told in the first person by Elijah Freeman, the first freeborn person in the settlement of Buxton in Canada West, this story begins with stories about everyday life in Buxton. Elijah is 11 years old and what his mama calls "fra-gile". He's skittish and sensitive and likely to run off if something scares him or cry if something sad or emotional is happening. The story is set in 1859, so slavery is still going on down in America. The people of Buxton are freed or escaped slaves and kids like Elijah who were born into freedom in Canada.
The first half of the book is mostly light-hearted - tales of Elijah fishing, going to school, getting duped by a dubious characters he calls "the Preacher". I found it laugh-out-loud funny. The second half of the book takes a darker turn. Elijah (and the audience) must confront some realities about slavery. Realities that were easy to deny when he was a freeborn boy safe in Canada. And Elijah must face his fears - his "fra-gility"- when he's called on to help some people who really need it. It's a powerful story with memorable characters.
One of the things that impressed me most when I was reading was language. The story is written in dialect, which in itself shows the important of language to the author. I didn't find it cumbersome and, in fact, I found it rather beautiful. I constantly found myself reading passages out loud to hear how they sounded. Throughout the book, Elijah talks about "growned-up talk", about how adults don't seem to say what they actually mean, but instead have a secret code that only they seem to understand. This culminates at the end of the book when Elijah realizes that maybe he actually can understand some of this adult-speak.
Misunderstandings about language also show how important it is. At one point near the beginning, Elijah and his best friend misunderstand the phrase "Familiarity breeds contempt", with hilarious results at their school house. Later, Elijah really learns a lesson about familiarity breeding contempt when he uses the n word in front of an adult in the community. Reading and writing are important tools that Elijah has. They are especially important because many of the adults in the community of Buxton are not able to read or write.
This emphasis on language even takes me back to Tasting the Sky, which I recently read. It's amazing and awesome how two such different books (and cultures) can have something in common...
Elijah of Buxton... I laughed, I cried, I went home happy (and recommended it to pretty much everyone). If you've been meaning to read this one, do yourself a favor and wait no longer!
(OH, and this is also one of my books for the Expanding Horizons challenge... wahoo!)