Sunday, November 9

Reading Catchup

Blame the absence on work, or laziness, or the fact that the cats always try to sit on the keyboard.  It's hard to type when you have to balance the laptop on the edge of your knee.  It's much easier to just READ.  And once in a while I read to the cats. (They love it.) So here are a few booknotes, first on children's books I've read recently.  Now that it's a new school year it's time to read this year's Battle of the Books choices. The most recent is Christopher Paul Curtis's Elijah of Buxton. Curtis has been winning awards for his fine historical fiction, and it's not clear why this one was only a Newbery Honor Book, not THE winner.  It's also a Coretta Scott King winner. 

Elijah is the first freeborn child in the Canadian settlement of Buxton, a real place started by a white Presbyterian minister for free blacks, just over the border from Michigan.  The time is the 1850s, and each family in the settlement has a house and a plot of land. There's an excellent school for the children, who learn Latin and Greek and everything an educated white child would be learning at the time.  When a newly freed or rescued ex-slave arrives in the community, the Liberty Bell (cast in Philadelphia) is tolled ten times in welcome.  Many residents bear marks of slavery, but 11-year old Elijah doesn't really know much about what slavery really was like.  The first half of the novel consists of episodes of everyday life.  Told in the first person in a dialect that's easy to get used to and believe in, the tales of school l and daily life and very funny escapades of Elijah and his friend Cooter constitute a typical children's story, and for a while it seems as though there will be no plot.  But in the second half, the book darkens and becomes a breathtaking coming-of-age story as Elijah travels over the border into to Michigan to right a wrong.  Slave catchers and ruthless people are everywhere, and Elijah becomes involved in a dangerous situation.  Since this is a children's book, the outcome is eventually joyous, but not before Elijah witnesses misery and death first-hand and learns some of the reality of slavery.  His final act before returning home is stunning, and I finished the book in tears.

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