68 pages 2 hours read

Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah of Buxton

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


Elijah of Buxton is a 2007 middle grade novel by American writer Christopher Paul Curtis. Set in the 1850s, it follows 11-year-old Elijah Freeman, the first freeborn child of Buxton, a Canadian settlement of escaped slaves, as he makes a dangerous journey into the United States. The novel was a Newbery Honor Book and won the Coretta Scott King Award.


Plot Summary

The story opens as Elijah investigates strange animal tracks with his friend Cooter. A local man known as the Preacher tells them that hoop snakes, dangerously poisonous reptiles that roll after their victims, made the tracks. Elijah runs home afraid, earning a talk from his mother on being gullible. Elijah puts a toad in her sewing basket as a reminder that everyone is afraid of something; in return, Ma pranks Elijah with a snake in the cookie jar as a lesson in tasting one’s own medicine.

Days later, Elijah throws rocks at fish to catch enough for several neighbors’ dinners; in Buxton, everyone helps each other and gives charitably. The Preacher sees Elijah do this and is convinced that Elijah’s aim can help the Settlement.

Mr. Travis, the schoolteacher, gives a lesson on respecting elders, education, and opportunities. Just after Mr. Travis’s lesson, Elijah accidentally uses the n-word in conversation with Mr. Leroy, a former slave whose family still lives in slavery. Mr. Leroy’s reaction is immediate; he slaps Elijah and shows the brand on his chest. Elijah already knew the word wrong, but now he understands the extent to which it symbolizes hatred. Comparing the lessons of Mr. Travis and Mr. Leroy, Elijah decides the most impactful lessons come from real life.

The Preacher convinces Elijah to sneak away one night to see the traveling carnival camped at nearby Chatham. The Preacher plans to exploit Elijah’s rock-throwing talent there, telling Elijah this is how he will help the Settlement. The Preacher introduces Elijah by the name Ahbo to Sir Charles, the carnival owner. Elijah wins in a contest with the carnival’s slingshot artist. A young boy named MaWee tells Elijah that Sir Charles purchased him in America to play a role in the slingshot show as a tribal chief. Realizing Sir Charles is a slave owner, the Preacher escorts Elijah home but returns to the carnival alone to rescue MaWee and bring him to freedom in Buxton.

Elijah must read aloud a letter to a neighbor, Mrs. Holton, who cannot read. It shares the news that her husband, John, has died. Later, sharing stories of slavery, Ma tells Mrs. Holton that her own mother insisted Ma take a chance on escaping, even if it meant never seeing her again.

Mr. Leroy carves an inscription for Mrs. Holton’s husband, written by Mrs. Holton and revised by Elijah. In gratitude, Mrs. Holton gives Mr. Leroy the money she was saving to buy her husband’s freedom. Now Mr. Leroy has enough money to pay for his family’s freedom. He asks Elijah’s father to help with arrangements, but the Preacher offers to take the money and go to Michigan to arrange the deal himself. Mr. Leroy decides to let him. Elijah offers his endorsement that the Preacher is trustworthy. Pa suggests the Preacher travel with a neighbor, Mr. Highgate.

Days later, Mr. Highgate returns to Buxton, shot by the Preacher. Mr. Leroy is determined to pursue the Preacher; he insists that Elijah accompany him. Feeling responsible, Elijah agrees. Mr. Leroy and Elijah trail the Preacher to a stable where slave patrollers are staying. Mr. Leroy has an attack. Just before he dies, he makes Elijah promise to get the money back or kill the Preacher.

Inside the stable, Elijah discovers six recaptured slaves who almost made it to Canada—a woman, Mrs. Chloe; her baby Hope; the baby’s father, Kamau; two other men; and a young boy. The Preacher is dead, killed by the slave patrollers. Elijah tries to help the runaways escape but realizes he cannot break them free. He and Mrs. Chloe agree, however, that Elijah can take the baby, Hope, whom the paddy rollers did not chain. Elijah takes the baby to Buxton, telling her that she’s picked the perfect day for freedom.