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Elijah can do some extraordinary things. He has his own special method of fishing where he chucks rocks at the fish to stun them, then scoops them up with a net. He’s getting more and more grown every day. But this thing that most people remember about him is the time he threw up all over the great Frederick Douglas, the most famous, smartest man ever to have escaped from slavery. When Mr. Douglas came to Buxton, Elijah was just a baby, not even one year old. Mr. Douglas held baby Elijah up high and started making a speech about how this child, the first freeborn baby in the settlement of former slaves, was a beacon of light for all the ages. He started getting really excited and bouncing Elijah up and down, until pretty soon Elijah got a funny look on his face and started throwing up everything he ever ate. Folk like to exaggerate the story, saying he threw up for a whole half hour, nearly drowned Frederick Douglas, and all the desks and chairs in the schoolhouse floated away.
Now Elijah is twelve and nearly grown. He sees evidence of it every day, how he understands more about what grown ups are saying and doing every day and he starts to see more of the sadness and grief in Buxton. When someone Elijah trusts steals the money from a former slave that he was going to use to free his family, it falls on Elijah to pursue the thief, and Elijah discovers first hand some of the unimaginable horrors of slavery.
Spoiler alert! Some of the questions contain key elements of the plot. Do not read if you don't want to know what happens!
- What do you think of the preacher? Is he trustworthy? How would he justify his actions?
- What do you think “familiarity breed contempt” means? How does this concept relate to Elijah’s relationship with Mr. Leroy or the preacher?
- On page 158 it says “the second hardest step in making yourself free is the first one you take . . . . [and] that the most hardest step is the very last one.” What do you think that means? Why is the last step the hardest?
- Elijah’s mom says he’s “fra-gile.” What does she mean by that? How does he get this reputation? By the end of the story, is he still “fra-gile?”
- Christopher Paul Curtis uses exaggeration and euphemism throughout the story. Where are some places where each occur? How do they help the story? What do they tell you about the characters?
- Slavery has left its mark both physically and emotionally on many of the residents of Buxton. In what scenes does this come through? How do the characters show these scars from slavery?
- At the end of the book, Mr. Alston refuses to help Elijah rescue the slaves in the barn, saying “they got laws here” (page 324). Do you think that was the right decision? Could the men or Elijah have done anything differently? What would have happened?
- How does Elijah grow and change between the first page and the last?
- Discuss the settlement of Buxton, both as a real place and how it’s portrayed in the book. Who lives there and how do they get there? How does the settlement work? What prejudices and challenges to the residents still face?
If you liked this book, try
- The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
- The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by W.R. Philbrick
- Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
- The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.