And this book, by Christopher Paul Curtis, is absolutely perfect.
Don’t let the dust jacket fool you, though. It’s not an adventure story. The whole adventure part is only the last quarter of the book. It is a growing-up story, a portrait of a boy and a town and a time.
Elijah Freeman was the first child born in the settlement of Buxton, Canada, just over the river from Detroit. He’s lived a pretty uneventful life, save for the infamous interaction he had with Frederick Douglass when he was a baby. He lives with his Ma and Pa, who are escaped slaves, and the rest of the Settlement. Nothing much happens… he goes to school, catches fish, makes friends… yet everything happens. They welcome new runaway slaves, he has to read a letter bearing bad news to one of the members of the settlement, he has adventures, he learns and grows. It’s a marvelous story.
One of my most favorite things about this story is the captivating way in which Curtis tells it. Elijah is a funny, observant and completely likable narrator. And the book is written in dialect, and, while this usually is incredibly hard to read, it works like magic here.
Just an example:
I ain’t trying to be disrespectful of Ma’s cooking when I say that neither. Ma can fry some tolerable good fish and make vegetables that ain’t exactly horrible, but she caint bake for nothing. Pa would get pretty excited if I showed up with one of Mrs. Brown’s pies. He never let on to Ma how happy those pies made him, but if he thought she waren’t listening and couldn’t see him, he’d give me some big hugs and spin me ’round the room and kick up his heels!
Most of the book is all buildup, really — little snippets of Elijah’s life and interactions with members of the Settlement — so when the “adventure” part starts, and the book turns dark, you have all the relationships you’ve made to fall back on. If it had been more adventure and less story, the book would have possibly been too dark, too difficult to plod through. I was crying near the end; it’s horrible, but there’s no way to prettify slavery. I think the way Curtis handles the horrors is done with tact… and power and hope. It’s quite moving.
It’s one of those kind of books that win awards, that stay with you, that you want to shove into other people’s hands and say “Read this!”
If you’ve never read a Christopher Paul Curtis book before, or even if you have, read this one.