Trusting A Narrator

I recently read Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis. And I had an unusual experience while reading the book.

The story is told from 11 year old Elijah’s point of view and, as an adult, I found Elijah’s youthful naivete extremely amusing. While I wholeheartedly trusted Elijah’s sincerity as a story-teller, I also knew that there were many things Elijah didn’t quite understand about the world. So I couldn’t trust him 100%.

Well. When Elijah, one of the only literate, educated people in the settlement of Buxton, Canada, did some math, I found myself in an unusual position as a reader. Little Elijah had to ring a bell 20 times for each freed slave that entered the settlement. That particular day, a family of 5 had arrived. So Elijah rang that bell 100 times. And I knew that Elijah’s math was correct.

But many of the people in Elijah’s town did not know that he was correct. They didn’t know 5 X 20 was 100. And several of them questioned Elijah, who second guessed himself a few times, and then concluded with confidence that he was correct.

And while all this was going on, I did the math in my head a total of three times. Because I trusted Elijah, but also knew that his 11 year old point of view was very often wrong. Three times I had to assure myself, that 5 X 20 did indeed equal 100.

Well, people. I was stunned. I was stunned that a writer could do such a thing. Create a character you couldn’t fully trust due to his youth. And create it so well that a grown woman with a college education second guessed math she knew full well was correct.

It was an extraordinary experience.

Creating a narrator you can’t fully trust is a very difficult thing to do. But, writers, if you want to do it, this character must be a good guide. Elijah of Buxton blew me away for many reasons. But mostly for the reason that the character was so well developed I couldn’t even trust hard cold fact! Kudos!

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