My family (Olive, age 11, and Theo, age 9, and Jennifer and Matt, just plain old) loves reading Christopher Paul Curtis. The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963, is a gripping story dealing with the Civil Rights Movement, at turns hysterically funny and tragically sad. We just finished Elijah of Buxton, his 2007 work about a community of escaped and freed people living just north of the Canadian border, in which he uses humor and tragedy with equally powerful results.
Two brief selections to give you an idea of how Curtis portrays the day’s themes with emotional force in the novel:
Once we got off the ferry in Detroit I looked back over to Canada.
I ain’t disputing that I’m a whole lot smarter than other children who’re near ’bout twelve years old, but I couldn’t for anything see how come a river made so much difference. How could one side of the river mean you were free and the other side mean you were a slave?
When you looked at the trees in Canada and the trees in America they seemed to be the same trees, like they could’ve come out of one seed. Same with the rocks and the houses and the horses and everything else that I could compare, but the growned folks could see big differences that waren’t plain to me. (p. 278)
I remembered all the stories we’d heard in classes about abolitionists and how they’d risk their lives for people who were just like these folks. I remembered how those stories got you so excited and mad and worked up that you wanted to charge down into American and free all the slaves. I remember how those stories near ’bout made you cry when the growned folks would tell you how they felt when the finally got to Buxton and they pressed their left hands onto the Liberty Bell and they finally knowed how it felt not to be owned by nobody.
I thought ’bout all the times me and Cooter and Emma and our friends played abolitionists and slavers, the way we hand to pull straws to see who would get to be the abolitionists ’cause didn’t no one want to pretend to be somebody bad as a slave owner. I remembered how we’d act like we were sneaking up on a plantation to kill the lot of slave masters and make a run for Canada with some happy, smiling, free slaves. I remembered how easy it all was.
But now I could see our playing didn’t have nothing to do with the truth. I could see how it was a whole lot harder when things were real and you had to worry ’bout shotguns and chains and coughing little babies and crying folks without no clothes. Folks that were the same as me and Ma and Pa, ‘cepting they were near dead. ‘Cepting they gave off a sad, peculiar smell. ‘Cepting they were chained in a way that I ain’t never seen even the wildest, worstest animal chained.
I knowed right then that if I got out fo this stable in Michigan alive I waren’t never gonna play abolitionists again. Not just ’cause all the fun had been took out of it, but mostly ’cause I knowed I waren’t brave enough to even pretend to be one of ’em. I knowed it would be kinda like pretending you were a angel. It was the kind of thing that would make you ‘shamed the next time you ran into a real angel or a real abolitionist. It was the kind of thing that shouldn’t be involved in no sort of game. (pp 307-308)
In the TAH programs, we spend lots of time emphasizing the value of primary documents – and rightly so. Christopher Paul Curtis reminds me to make room for fiction, too.