This historical fiction novel by Christopher Paul Curtis is an Apple Signature book published by Scholastic, Inc., and written for kids ages 9 to 10. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman lives in Canada's Buxton settlement, a refuge for freed slaves and their families. As the first free-born child, Elijah has heard about, but never experienced, slavery. He enjoys a peaceful life attending church and school under the guidance of wise, loving parents and kind community members. After school, he works alongside Mr. Leroy, a man saving to buy his wife and children out of slavery. Elijah's parents consider the boy "fra-gile," so he constantly struggles to prove himself and understand the "growned up" world.
A man who calls himself Right Reverend Deacon Doctor Zephariah Connerly the Third takes advantage of Elijah's desire to appear grown up. He praises the boy's precise rock chucking abilities and tells Elijah that Jesus has given him a gift he must use for the good of the community. He invites Elijah to sneak out with him one night to watch a traveling carnival. Zephariah makes Elijah demonstrate his chucking skills to the show's owner and nearly sells the boy to the carnival.
When a neighbor, Mrs. Holton, gets a letter saying her husband was beaten to death, the town grieves with her. She gives Mr. Leroy all the money she had been saving to free her husband. Overwhelmed and excited, Mr. Leroy allows Zephariah to transport the large sum to someone who can retrieve his family. Zephariah steals the money, and a distraught Mr. Leroy asks Elijah to sneak off to America with him to find Zephariah. Mr. Leroy dies on the way, making Elijah promise to avenge him. Elijah finds Zephariah hanged in a barn, killed by white slave traders. He also finds four slaves and a baby, naked and in chains. His first real experience with slavery jars him, and he's devastated to realize he can't save these people. The slave woman urges him to take her child to safety. As he crosses into Canada with the baby girl, he whispers the warm welcoming speech Pa always gives to newly-freed slaves.
Elijah and his family attend church and Sabbath school. Elijah lists chores he'd rather do than sit through church. White women in America write to tell Mrs. Holton her husband has gone to "the loving arms of our Savior." The letter mentions God's mercy, wisdom and providence and says the man received a Christian burial. Mr. Leroy says if God is just, like he knows He is, the "N" word will be buried with all the cruel white people who used it. People use phrases like "Lord have Mercy," "What on God's earth" and "Sweet Baby Jesus." The community believes in God, so these exclamations are not said in mockery of God. Elijah says a girl in his class lets the sin of envy choke her heart.
Zephariah, a preacher without a church, proclaims he's the smartest man around. He tricks Elijah out of some fish by convincing the boy to tithe. He praises Elijah's stone-throwing accuracy, first saying the left-handed throwing looks like the work of the Devil and then deciding it is a gift from Jesus. Zephariah likens Elijah's fishing skills to Jesus feeding the 5,000.
Ma and Pa, former slaves, are loving parents with a sense of humor. They offer Elijah wise principles for living. Both are concerned that Elijah is too "fra-gile" and try to instill an ability to be brave in him. Pa helps bring other slaves to freedom and ensures they enjoy a warm reception when they arrive in Buxton. Zephariah pretends to befriend Elijah whenever he wants something from the boy. He steals and gambles with Mr. Leroy's money and shoots a man. Mr. Leroy slaps Elijah when the boy uses a racial slur. He lectures Elijah about the word's legacy of hate. He later tells Elijah he can't be timid about what he does but should approach situations expecting good to happen. Mr. Leroy is the first adult who treats Elijah as an adult. Mr. Travis often gets visibly frustrated, teaching the same kids for school and Sabbath school. He affirms Elijah's efforts when the boy helps compose a memorial plaque for Mrs. Holton.
Other Belief Systems
Elijah sometimes talks about spells or "conjures." He calls the show folks at the carnival "conjurers." A carnival actress says heathen magic has left her blind. When someone acts out, such as when Mr. Travis gets angry while at school, Elijah says it's like he's been taken over by Satan.
A slave trying to curse without saying the word spells out "d-a-m." Several white people refer to black people as pickaninnies. Elijah starts to say the n-word, but Mr. Leroy angrily stops him before he can get it out.
A slave woman kisses Elijah and her baby on their heads.
Newberry Award, 2008; Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2008; Coretta Scott King Award, 2008 and others.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Do you agree with Elijah, that once you start lying, it isn't hard to keep lying?
Have you ever told a lie that led to more lies?
What does the Bible say about lying?
- Why does Ma say black people like talking and telling stories?
How does storytelling empower a culture, especially one that has little or no freedom?
- Why is Mr. Leroy so angry when Elijah starts to use the n-word?
What does that word mean to him?
Why does he insist it should be buried?
How can a single word be powerful enough to produce rage, despair or other emotions?
- Why did Pa say Mr. Leroy wasn't thinking clearly after Zephariah stole his money?
Have you ever viewed a situation the way you wanted it to be rather than the way it really was?
What were some decisions you have made based on your emotions? What happened?
- How does Elijah change his reputation from that of being the boy who threw up on Frederick Douglass?
How does he prove he is maturing?
How do you think the community will respond to him when he returns with the baby?
- What were some signs that Zephariah wasn't a good man?
Why do you think Elijah was fooled by him?
When you meet someone new, what do you look for to determine whether to trust him or her?
Have you ever trusted someone who lied to you or let you down? What happened?
What did you learn from the situation?
- Did Elijah fail because he couldn't save all the American slaves he found?
How did he make the best of the situation?
Do you have to do something huge and earth-shattering to be a hero? Explain your answer.
Parents or teachers could use this book as a springboard for studying slavery and the Underground Railroad.
Lying/Deception: Elijah lies to his parents and others so he and Mr. Leroy can go looking for Zephariah. He sometimes sneaks out of the house at night to roam around the forest. Though his parents have forbidden him to go to a traveling show, he sneaks out and attends it with Zephariah. Elijah says once you start lying, it's not hard to keep going.
Nudity: The slaves Elijah finds in America are naked. He averts his eyes.
Smoking: Some of the circus people smoke cigars.
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