I was prepared to like this new historical fiction novel by Newbery award-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis. After all, Bud, Not BUddy, the book that won the Newbery in 2000, is a great story. In fact, I was not disappointed, although I must say that the book starts out a little slowly. I read someone’s review of the book comparing it to The Great Brain series (sorry, I don’t remember who), and the book does begin with that flavor. Elijah is an eleven year old boy living in a settlement for free (escaped or bought out of slavery) Negroes in Canada just across the border from Detroit, Michigan. The year is 1860, and the name of the settlement is Buxton. (It’s a real place, by the way. A little of its history is recounted in the author’s note at the back of the book.)
In the first few chapters, Elijah gets into all sorts of scrapes because of his fra-gile constitution or because of his typical boylike mischief. He runs from an imaginary “hoop snake”, scares his mother with a toad frog, and finds out he has a gift from God, the gift of “chunking rocks” quite accurately. The story reads like a typical boyhood adventure story, with a bit of an atypical setting.
About midway through the tone and plot turn serious as Elijah learns to get past being fra-gile in order to help a friend redeem his family from slavery. There’s also a great discussion of why it’s inappropriate for even black people among themselves to use the n-word. Elijah casually uses the word “nig—” to refer to himself and his friends, and his friend Mr. Leroy jumps all over him, saying, “How you gunn call them children in that school and you’self that name them white folks calls us? Has you lost your natural mind? You wants to be like one n’em? You wants to be keeping they hate alive? . . . You thinks just ’cause that word come from twixt your black lips it man anything different? You think it ain’t choke up with the same kind of hate and disrespect it has when they say it? You caint see it be even worst when you call it out?”
Elijah learns his lesson, and I think the author meant for there to be a lesson embedded in there for kids of today, too. Derogatory terms have a history; words have meaning; sticks and stones and words can all hurt.
The entire book is written in first person from Elijah’s point of view, and it’s all written in dialect like the language Mr. Leroy uses in the above quotation. Some kids may have a little trouble with the dialect, but I don’t think it will be too bothersome. I thought after I got used to it that it gave the book a sense of history and transported the reader back in time as well as or better than any other device the author could have used.
As I said, the ending turns serious and pretty much heart-rending. This is not a book for younger readers, and older ones (grades 5-8) may have some challenging questions about what happens in the book and about the dark side of U.S. history. That’s a good thing, but be prepared for the discussion.
Wonderful story. Probably a Newbery contender. Nominated for the Cybil Award for Middle Grade Fiction.