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Black History reads: Elijah of Buxton (2007)

Throughout this month at the library, we will strive to highlight Black stories which enable you to pause and reflect about the enduring achievements of Black people in Canada. Today’s collection highlight will focus on a middle-grade novel that will appeal to both kids and adults. It’s a historical fiction novel, as well as a coming-of-age story where the main character learns strength and resilience in the face of challenging times.

The book titled Elijah of Buxton (2007) by Christopher Paul Curtis is set in 1849 in Buxton, Ontario. It centres on almost-12-year-old Elijah Freeman, who was born in the free Canadian settlement of Buxton and has never known the horrors of slavery, unlike many of the other people in his community. His days are filled with going to school, doing chores for other people in the bustling town of Buxton, and going to his secret fishing hole to catch perch for his mama to cook up. But when a respected community member steals a large sum of money from another resident who intended to use it to buy his family out of slavery, Elijah will have to journey to the country where his parents left and encounter the horrifying reality of what it really means to be a slave, and a life from which he will forever be free, if he can find the courage to overcome all obstacles and find his way back home.

Elijah is a fully fleshed out protagonist, who is unafraid to make his thoughts and feelings heard for the reader. At the beginning of the book, he possesses a reputation for being “fra-gile” and sensitive, so that is a meaningful character flaw that he grapples with over the course of the novel. Christopher Paul Curtis’ choice to have us see through the eyes of Elijah means that his protagonist has a very distinct voice, and we see his intelligence, good humor, and care and concern for other people shine through.

There are several funny bits I encountered while reading the book. For example, near the beginning of the book, Elijah pranks his mother by hiding a frog in her sewing basket; then a few days later, she pranks him right back by hiding a little snake in his shoe and causes him to run out of the house screaming. These moments of levity are balanced out with the harsh realities of the effects of slavery against Black people (such as the use of a particular word that Elijah uses in front of his adult friend, Mr. Leroy, not knowing about the roots of hate that are implicitly hidden in that word). The novel does have a satisfying emotional ending but does end rather abruptly and leads into a short post-script explaining the history of the Buxton settlement.

Fig 1: Cover of Elijah of Buxton (2007), by Christopher Paul Curtis.

This book was a Silver Maple award nominee for 2007 and won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for 2008.

If you want to read more of Christopher Paul Curtis’ work, he has written many stories in a similar vein for both kids and teens. He wrote a companion novel to Elijah of Buxton titled The Madman of Piney Woods (2014), which is set 40 years after the events of Elijah of Buxton. His other works include his debut novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham (1993), Bud, Not Buddy (1999), The Mighty Miss Malone, and The Journey of Little Charlie (2018).

Please let us know in the comments if you have enjoyed any of Christopher Paul Curtis’ other stories!

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