Facing Fears and Gaining Courage: A Review of ‘Elijah of Buxton’

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.  We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reading Level:

Grades: 4-5 [according to common core]

Grades: 6     [according to Scholastic – reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently]

Interest Level:  

Grade:  7

Review and Comments:

Elijah Freeman is the first free born child born in the settlement at Raleigh in Canada West called Buxton.  The honor makes Elijah well known among the citizens of almost all ex-slaves.  Elijah’s life is intertwined with many strong and often damaged people from the town.  His relationship with those people and the events they share begin his journey to see life as it really is.

“Pa’s always telling me that people that use to be slaves are toting things ‘round with ‘em that caint be seen with your regular eyes….mostly horrific parts.”

Ma and Pa were slaves who now appreciate every free breath they take. They are watchful guides who teach Elijah to follow the Buxton creed:  “One helping one to uplift all”.  They want Elijah to grow up to be someone who is strong and uses common sense so he is held responsible for his actions.  They want him to stop being so ‘fragile’ and gullible.  Elijah has a tendency to scream or run or get weak kneed during times of stress or fear, and his parents do not see this impulse getting any better even though he is eleven years old.

“You caint let your wantings blind you to what’s the truth.  You always got to look at things the way they is, not the way you wish ‘em to be.”

“Mas are some amazing and scary people.  Seems like they got ways of seeing things that aint’s showing, and hearing things that aint’s being said.”

Cooter Bixby is Elijah’s best friend.  Cooter tends to do and say things that get him in trouble.  He certainly doesn’t mean to mishandle things and unfortunately he often doesn’t even realize he is at fault.

“Cooter aint the sharpest tool on the saw….”

The Right Reverend Deacon Zephariah Connerly the Third is a man who lives on the fringe of Buxton society.  He uses Elijah’s inexperience with the world to involve him in some questionable and often dangerous situations. Even though he remembers his parents’ warning to stay away from the preacher, Elijah is drawn to his scheming yet convincing ways.  Each encounter is a life lesson for Elijah and after awhile he begins to see the real man – “the stealer of dreams”.

“Pa says when someone sweet-talks you like this, you got to be real careful with the next  words that come out of their mouth  ….the sweet-talking is like a rattling-snake, it’s like you’re getting a warning that you’re ‘bout to get bit.”

Mr. LeRoy is an ex-slave who works extremely hard to earn enough money to buy his family’s freedom from slavery.  He says very little until Elijah uses the ‘N’ word to describe himself and his peers. Mr. LeRoy’s violent reaction to Elijah’s casual use of the word teaches him “in a way that caint help but last forever”.   Then, a desperate Mr. LeRoy and The Right Reverend Deacon Zephariah Connerly’s lives intersect with devastating results and Elijah witnesses the evil that he has only heard about.

“That just shows you done swallowed they poison. And swallowed it whole……That’s a name what never called with nothing but hate.”

Mr. Travis teaches in the regular school as well as the Sabbath school classes.  He tries to impress on his students how fortunate they are to be free from “the yoke of slavery”. He wants them to seize every opportunity to advance and develop so they don’t live their lives in “bondage”.

“…ain’t nothing in this world that can get you more frighted up than watching your Sabbath school teacher get took over by Satan and commence twisting the juice outta children’s ears. Which is probably the first step the Devil takes when he’s ‘bout to wrestle your soul away from you!”

Elijah tells his story with genuine honesty.  He reveals every detail about his deepest thoughts and feelings while on his journey to face his fears.  Many times his revelations are very funny but then there are others that are distressing and emotional.  We learn through his experiences what the people of Buxton have endured.  These people become so authentic it is easy to develop a real attachment to them.  Elijah’s deepest reflections put an exclamation mark on his experiences.

“Bout the only thing I could say for sure is that being growned don’t make a whole lot of sense.  Maybe that’s why it takes so long for you to grow up, maybe enough time’s gotta go by for all the sense to get worned right out of you.”  “This thinking like a growned person was starting to be sensical.”

This is the first Christopher Curtis book I have read, and I am a new fan of his storytelling style.  His remarkable characters come to life with straightforward lessons that inform and enlighten the reader. I strongly disagree with the suggested reading level at 4th and 5th grade.  The story does includes important historical information.  A proficient reader may be able to read this book but many situations in the story are more appropriate for a more mature reader – a range that is better suited to the suggested interest level.  This is a book that parents should read in order to determine if it is appropriate for their younger child.

Elijah of Buxton is the winner of the Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor Book for 2008.

Possible Concerns:

  • [The preacher tells Elijah Freeman and his friend a fantastic tale.] “Boys, I need to swear on your mothers’ lives that if I’m ever bitten by one of these beasts, you’ll take this pistol and put a bullet in my brain!  I’d rather be shot dead than face such a horrible, prolonged death!  Raise your hands, I need each of you to promise that you’ll blow my head right off my shoulders!”
  • [Slave catchers were in the vicinity and everyone thinks the preacher killed them.] “Stories started getting told ‘bout why that the Preacher had stoled up on those two white men with the blade from that scythe and slit their throats and cut ‘em into hunks then throwed their earthly remainders in Lake Erie.”
  • [Elijah and his friend think the teacher is going to teach a lesson on a family breeding contest when they see the words Familiarity Breeds Contempt on the board.] They are worried someone will stop the lesson before “he gets to the real interesting, real nasty parts”.
  • [ Elijah tells Mr. Leroy about his teacher’s anger about Familiarity Breeds Contempt] Elijah says, “And me and all of ‘em other little nigg…..”
  • [Mr. Leroy loses control when he hears Elijah use the ‘N’word.] “What name do you think they call my wife when they take her to another man for his own?”
  • [During a conjuring demonstration at the Carnival of Oddities, a young boy pretends to be under a spell and follows instructions.] Then, “….Sammy was naked as the day he was born.”
  • [Elijah’s mom recalls what her mother said to her when she tells her she saw Canada.] “You done got took to the gates of Heaven and turned you’self back ‘cause you might not never see me again? What make you think I wants to see you down here know them….d-a-m things Massa got in store for you?  Ain’t you got no inkling what he waiting on you to get old enough for?  How daft is you that seeing me be worth more than being rid of that?”
  • [Elijah saw a woman slave shackled to a wall] “I also saw she didn’t have no clothes on ‘cepting a rag hanging ‘cross one of her shoulders.”
  • [The description of the men shackled.] “The rest of ‘em were men and they waren’t wearing nothing atall, not even a rag.”

Further Discussion:

  • There is an interesting history of Buxton, founded in 1849, in the author’s note and a question and answer section with the author.

Catholic Resources:

  • Saint Josephine Bakhita is venerated as a modern African saint, and as a statement against the brutal history of Africa’s people practicing slavery. She has been adopted as the only patron saint of Sudan.
  • Peter Claver was canonized in 1888, and Pope Leo XIII declared him the worldwide patron of missionary work among black slaves. Peter Claver declared himself “the slave of the Negroes forever.”
  • Peter of St. Joseph Betancur dedicated his life to helping the poor and oppressed in jails and hospitals, as well as ministering to African slaves, Native Americans, and anyone in need.
  • Saint Patrick is the patron saint against the fear of snakes. His feast day is March 17.
  • CCC 1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.
  • CCC 1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.
  • CCC 1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it:
      • Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.