Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis was one of the first books that came to mind as I thought of one to share for Black History Month (there are many wonderful books in this genre, so I will probably share more!).
(As much as possible, I try to buy books about Black history that are written by Black authors. I feel it is important to hear from families and descendants of those who suffered incomprehensible injustice at the hands of white men, many of whom called themselves “Christians.” Listening to and acknowledging someone else’s pain, without being dismissive of it, is necessary to repairing relationships that have been severed for far too long.)
Now to Elijah….
He is the first free born black child, the son of two freed slaves, who escaped to Buxton, Ontario, a little settlement just North of the US-Canada border.
Elijah is a likeable character and a typical 11 year old boy in his often humorous adventures and antics. In every other way, he is unlike most 11 year old boys, as he grows up in a small community that is adjusting to a brand new life of freedom.
Christopher Paul Curtis masterfully contrasts the perils of slavery with glory of liberty when Elijah embarks on a dangerous journey to Michigan in hopes of recovering some money that had been stolen from his friend. It is here that Elijah sees the inhumanity and terror his parents fled from. His experience turns him from a “fra-gile” boy into a young man of great understanding, as he must find the courage to make it back home safely.
This story is superb at holding a reader’s attention. It requires mental gymnastics to follow along through events that will have you bursting with laughter, crying from tragedy, and feeling relieved and triumphant when each physically and emotionally battered slave successfully crosses over into the “land of the free,” determining to build a new, vibrant world for their own children.
In terms of language flow, I found Elijah of Buxton to be a challenge for young readers, as Christopher Paul Curtis uses an unfamiliar dialect in the conversational portions of each chapter. I had trouble with this too, at first, but once you get familiar with the voice, it becomes easier to hear it in your head, and adds a fun dimension to the story.
Depending on how well your children read, I would recommend this book for the middle grades, as a family read aloud, or the unabridged audiobook, which we also enjoyed.
One more thing. The minister in this story is not a very respectable character. This bothered me at first, because I want our children to have a high view of God’s servants and didn’t want this story to undermine their perception of pastors. However, I also want our children to realize that the best men are men at best, and that we are not to put our trust in princes (Psalm 146: 3-5).
I decided to turn this into a teaching opportunity, and we ended up having a great conversation about wolves in sheep’s clothing, and how our confidence and hope must always be in the Creator, not the creature.