Saturday, January 26, 2008

Elijah Eureka

I've been reading through the Newbery winners (and working a couple different jobs, and setting up in a whole new city and country, and wrestling my kid into her clothes in the morning, and etc. Not writing here, alas, but not because I wasn't thinking about it)--anyway, reading the Newbery books, and I've been thinking about Elijah of Buxton.

Now, I liked Elijah of Buxton. I liked the colorful characters, and the impish narrator, and the sly humor, and the thing with his mom and the snake and the cookie jar, and the classmate who wanders around with the doll to welcome new escaped slaves, and the fish he gives away all over town, and all of that.

I liked it. A lot. And it earned that Newbery Honor, and that Coretta Scott King award, and whatever further honors (or maybe honours) it's going to win in both the U.S. and Canada (where author Christopher Paul Curtis has lived for the last several years, and where I now live too).

But, somewhere around the point where the Reverend takes Elijah to see the carnival, I started to get a bit impatient with Elijah of Buxton. It seemed sort of episodic and rambling to no great purpose. I knew there was a plot coming (from the front-cover flap if nowhere else), and had some general idea of where it was going to be taking us, but when I was over halfway through the book I started having little internal monologues along the lines of: Come on, Mr. Curtis! Enough with the charming anecdotes, and bring it on already!

And then he did, of course, with a pow-pow-pow of plot that lays out--with no sugar-coating whatsoever and yet still miraculously in a way a kid could take in--the horror that was slavery in the United States, and left me gaping, like everyone else did, at how good it was.

But still, I've been thinking about why it took him so long: the book is 341 pages, and the real plot doesn't get rolling until page 181, and only kicks into high gear around 270. That's about 2/3 of the book spent on setup and back story and voice. Curtis's voice is compelling enough, and his characters are strong enough, that he can carry it off, but why does he?

Then I remembered I felt the same way about The Watsons Go to Birmingham, back when that was the new book everyone was raving about: there's this great family, and they're funny, and quirky, and they get in a car, and drive, and that's funny and interesting, and...and...and...well, I knew we were going to end up in Birmingham with a church being bombed, I mean it was 1964 and obviously that was where it was going, and the ride was swell, but I started to feel like one of those kids on a car trip: are we there yet? How about now? Now??

And I knew he didn't have to do it like that; I mean, Bud, Not Buddy isn't like that: Bud hits the road on something like page 7, and after that we're off to the races. And while I wasn't as crazy about Bucking the Sarge, there was no pacing problem there, either.

But tonight I finally figured it out, and I had to write it up here. Here's what I figured out: he did it on purpose. Elijah of Buxton and The Watsons Go to Birmingham are both about Big Tragic Events in African-American History, with capital letters and bold-face. So Big and Tragic and boldface, in fact, that it's easy to lose sight of the reality that these big events happened to regular people, not cardboard cutouts, and that regular people have a way of living their lives in small letters, with no boldface, but plenty of goofy jokes and small emnities and weird little personal habits, even when they're living in the midst of those Big Historical Events.

So he did it on purpose. He undercut the boldface, with embarrassing anecdotes about when the hero was a baby, and surly teenage brothers who are driving everybody nuts, and dads excited about the newest coolest car gadget, and slapstick practical jokes, and anecdotes up the wazoo until you start to wonder, what is the point??

But that is the point. He doesn't need to grab you right up with a plot first thing: the historical setup is carrying the tension right along with it, and even a 10-year-old knows it. If he brought in the big history-related plot right away, that would be what the book was about. And the book isn't about that: it's about the people who lived then, living their lives in spite of the racism lurking all around them. He needs to lope along with the funny anecdotes, because the loping and the funny are what's subversive. In Bud, Not Buddy, he can move along right away, because Bud, Not Buddy isn't about a Big Tragic Event in African-American History. It takes place in the Depression, sure, but since most of us have almost no ready-made sterotypical images of African-Americans in the Depression, he doesn't have to fight quite so hard to make Bud a real kid as opposed to a Tragic History Cutout.

It's not a new thing, to take a big historical event and make it human-sized. It's what every decent historical novel ever written has done. But I'm not sure how many people have done it by writing as little as possible about the elephant in the room until close to the last minute of the book.

It may be that everyone else has had this epiphany already, or that it was so self-evident that no one else has felt the need to point it out, but it was the first I've thought of it. And I know I've neglected this poor blog to the point where there may be no one even reading this. But if there's anywhere where someone else might have noticed this, and/or might think it was kind of a cool thing for Christopher Paul Curtis to have done, it's the kidlitosphere.

So, Kidlitosphere, here it is, should you happen to stumble across it.