CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007
Elijah of Buxton is the fictional story of 11-year-old Elijah, the first free-born child in the Canadian settlement of Buxton, near Chatham, ON. Buxton is a real, planned town, set on land bought in 1849 by Reverend William King, a white Presbyterian minister who established the town to support freed and escaped slaves from the United States. Through Elijah's eyes, Curtis shows the inhabitants' struggles to clear the land, educate their children and develop a strong community.
At the centre of it all is Elijah, a boy who feels he is almost "growned," yet who struggles with his emotions, trying so hard not to be "fra-gile," straining to use his intelligence, good sense and the love of his parents to figure out the adult world. Elijah is a skilled rock chunker, his rock-throwing skill providing fish for his family and neighbours. He helps others in many ways but, despite his intelligence, is nearly taken in by a scam artist. When an expedition to buy Mr. Leroy's family ends in disaster, revealing the horror of the slave traders, Elijah's thoughtful actions demonstrate that his family and community have built him into a fine young man. Elijah is a boy's boy, an adept, mischievous, yet respectful child whose story will be welcomed by both boys and girls as they watch him learn to see through into the adult world and emerge a hero.
Curtis's worthy goal of highlighting the time in Canadian life when some Canadians rose up to help Black slaves shines through his brilliant writing. He builds the picture of Buxton slowly, letting the reader see it through Elijah's eyes and actions. Elijah's uneasiness with the Preacher, from the time the Preacher cons him out of newly caught fish to the unfortunate visit to the fair, and the ultimate perfidy of gambling away Mr. Leroy's money, will gradually creep up on the reader.
But it is Curtis' unparalleled use of mid 19th century dialect that adds so much richness to the story. The words of Elijah's time flow out of his talkative mouth like honey, leading the reader to laugh and to nod in agreement, to bite the lip in fear and to squeeze back tears.
The secondary characters are as interesting as Elijah and equally as well-drawn. The strict teacher, Mr. Travis, demonstrates the former slaves' determination to develop an excellent academy of learning. Elijah's parents, his patient, contained father and his fierce mother, adore each other and their son, with whom they are firm and loving. Mr. Leroy's longing for his family, his hard physical labour, and his stress and sadness, lead to his heart attack and sudden death. The Preacher, the ultimate con man, resurrects a simpler time, when people were less skeptical and more easily both amused and duped.
Elijah of Buxton will enchant the intended readers, their parents and teachers, and anyone who loves excellent historical fiction.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
(Editor's note: Elijah of Buxton has been shortlisted for a Governor General's Literary Award in the category of children's literature - English language text.)
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