Now I had read Christopher Paul Curtis' Bud, Not Buddy when it won the Newbery Medal in 2000, and I liked it quite a bit, but I have to admit I wasn't completely blown away. I didn't rush out and recommend it to everyone I knew. Elijah of Buxton is another story.
The book is set in the mid 1860's in Buxton, Canada--one of the early Black settlements of escaped slaves from the United States. Elijah, the book's fictional hero, is the first free-born child in the settlement.
In some ways, it's a basic coming of age story. Elijah is what his mother calls a "fra-gile" child, and he is trying very hard to learn how to become more grown-up. In other ways, it's an amazing glimpse into what life on one of these settlements could have been like. There is a poignant juxtaposition between the young children in the settlement who've known nothing but freedom, and the adults, who have each risked everything to be free and carry heavy wounds and scars that the children can't begin to comprehend.
Mostly what I loved about this book, besides the beautiful writing and engaging story, is that it is ultimately a story about community. It is about how people can come together to try to make the world a better place, not just for themselves, but for one another. When Elijah, who goes to school and can read and write, is asked to read a letter to Mrs. Holton, informing her that her husband has been whipped to death by a slave owner, the women of the settlement go with him:
Mostly I think I didn't bawl 'cause once Ma and them women bunched up 'round Mrs. Holton with their watching, waiting eyes and hands, it felt like a whole slew of soldiers was ringing that parlour with swords drawed and waren't no sorrow so powerful it could bust through.I'll warn you, I bawled. I cried straight through the entire last three chapters. But it's not just sadness that makes you cry, it's the redemption and grace and joy mixed up in the sadness that is so affecting. This is a beautiful story and I know it won all the "literature for young people" awards, but I would recommend it to adults as well. A good story's a good story, after all.
You can visit the real Buxton Museum website here.
You can read about Christopher Paul Curtis' R.E.A.D Program and Kenya School Project here.