Elijah of Buxton is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel in which a boy is forced by circumstances to confront the evils of slavery, evils that many in his community have experienced, but as the first child born into freedom, he does not fully comprehend until events catapult him into another world.
Here is the plot:
The protagonist and narrator Elijah Freeman, an eleven-year old boy, the first free baby (not born as a slave) of the Elgin Settlement and Buxton Mission established in Canada in 1849 as a refuge for freed and escaped slaves, is typically mischievous and curious, but willing to learn. Other characters such as his mother, Preacher, and Mr. Leroy are introduced.
- Rising Action
Elijah is especially adept at rock throwing; he tosses flies into the water to lure fish to the surface, then kills them with his flying stones. After catching a number of fish, he trades them for pies and other desirables. The Preacher, a disreputable man notices Elijah's having been given "gifts from Jesus," slyly watches the boy; he is so impressed that he convinces Elijah to go with him to a carnival where he can exploit the boy's talents.
One day at school, the children are sent home and the men are armed and standing on the edge of town, wary of white men who have come to find escaped slaves. Further in the narrative, Elijah comes into conflict with Mr. Leroy when he uses the N-word; Mr. Leroy explains why it is an offensive word by showing Elijah his scars and his missing finger.
In Chapter 8, entitled "The Most Exciting Night of My Life so Far," Elijah sneaks away from home with Preacher where he witnesses an exploitation show in which Madame Sabbar, who is white, vanquishes MaWee, supposedly a "savage of the Swedish Mohongo tribe." While Elizah recognizes the savage as a white boy from his class, made up to be black, there is no mistaking the depiction of blacks as savage, animalistic creatures. After watching this Elijah's assumptions about life are challenged. But, although he hears his mother and others speak of their slavery, and reads a letter that describes to Mrs. Holton how her husband died after being captured when he tried to come to Buxton, Elijah does not yet fully understand the horrors of this institution. It is only after he goes to America and really sees slaves in torment that this horrific evil becomes comprehensible to him.
After Elijah mistakenly advises Mr. Leroy, who has saved money for the freedom of his family, that the Right Reverend Zephariah W. Connerly the Third can be trusted to help in this endeavor, that Elijah learns of the evil of man's exploitation of others. For, Mr. Leroy says,
“like anything else in life. . . . If you go at it ’specting something bad to happen, all you gunn do is draw that bad thing to you. You caint be timid ’bout nothing you do, you got to go at it like you ’specting good things to come out of it”
and puts his trust in Preacher. But, Leroy's money is stolen and his hopes dashed. Elijah, then, is forced by Mr. Leroy to accompany him on a dangerous adventure in America to pursue the Preacher and retrieve the money and rescue his family. When they are in Michigan, they learn that Preacher is in a stable, gambling with white men; however, Mr. Leroy suffers a heart attack, but is able to instruct Elijah to go to the stable and reclaim the money or kill the Preacher.
At the stable, Elijah sees Preacher's body hanging from the rafters, dead from horrific torture. There are other slaves who are shackled and tied. It is this sight that causes Elijah's epiphany in which he realizes the true horror of slavery. He remembers seeing the marks of shackles on the ankles and wrists of slaves,“but seeing the chains real waren’t the kind of thing you could imagine.”
Told by the slaves that he cannot save any of the adults, Elijah is given the baby of Mrs. Chloe, the only woman, who pleads with him to take the child with him back to Canada. This situation evokes his own mother's tale of her lone exodus to Canada that Elijah is greatly moved.
- Falling Action
Elijah must find the courage to return home; he thinks of going back alone, but cannot do it. He takes Mrs. Chloe's baby as he was asked.
At the end of the narrative, after bring Mrs. Chloe's baby to freedom, Elijah asks Mr. Alston to help him rescue the slaves in the barn, but Mr. Alston refuses, saying “they got laws here.” Clearly, Elijah's community yet faces challenges.