Whenever we start reading a book, one of our first objectives is to understand the characters. We want to figure out what kind of role they play in the story. When I was first introduced to the character Preacher from Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, I started to wonder what kind of role he would play in Elijah’s life; I imagined it would be a significant one. Because of his name I wanted to think of him as a good guy. Elijah and I both wanted to think of Preacher as being a good guy, but as I continued to read the story, it gradually dawned on me that he was not. I had been fooled, and I became very curious about how that happened.
I grew interested in Preacher as a character and a person after he first tricked Elijah into giving him four of his ten fish, which I will discuss in detail later on in this paper. I didn’t fully understand the importance of this scene when I first read it. This was a big clue telling the audience that Preacher is a sketchy character, but I ignored this warning because I thought, “if he calls himself a reverend, he must be a good person.” I kept a stubborn blind eye to the obvious until Chapter 8 when Preacher deceived Elijah into going to the circus.
Curtis created Preacher’s character, I believe, because he wanted to make a point: you can’t trust someone’s authority, character, and influences solely based on their title. Elijah and I had a hard time fully grasping this in the story. We wanted to believe that he was a good person. So, we ignored all the evidence that showed otherwise. Elijah was warned by many people, including his parents, that Preacher is not someone who you should be spending a lot of time with--especially not someone who you should let influence your thoughts and actions. So what made Preacher appear to be an honest person in both Elijah’s and my own eyes?
One answer is the way Curtis first presented Preacher in the beginning. He appeared to be comical and not very dangerous. We see him digging around in the dirt, and then, out of the middle of nowhere, he jumps up and yells, “Lord, have mercy! The preacher quick stood up and look all ‘round him the way you would if someone had screamed out ‘Wolf!’” (3). Elijah’s response and the rest of Preacher’s explanations make for a very amusing dialog.
This passage got me starting to imagine Preacher’s character. He seemed in this scene to be an amusing character with maybe some words of wisdom. It’s hard for the readers to change their first impression. Michael O. Tunnel and James Jacobs, authors of the book, Children’s Literature, Briefly discuss this idea in the second chapter when they write, “it is the author’s job to show us the character’s personality in such a way that we can become involved with that life ” (13). Right away, I started to get very involved with these two characters, Elijah and Preacher. I started to create a basic idea about what the book might be about. Maybe it would be about these two different characters going on funny adventures full of important lessons for both Elijah and the readers to learn. My original thought for what these lessons might be ended up being dramatically different than the real lesson. When Elijah first introduces the readers to Preacher, he explains that he might not be the wisest person in the world. So my first impression should have not been fully accepting of his character and title. I should not have respected and depended on his title as much as I did. The author first made him appear to be harmless, but because of his title, I took it farther than I should have.
Later on in the book the readers are given more examples of Preacher’s questionable character. In Chapter 3 we see Preacher con Elijah. After sweet-talking Elijah, he slyly brings up the topic of “tithing.” Elijah does know what it is and is confused, even when given an excellent definition: “It’s giving tenth of your belonging and your works to the Lord” (50). Preacher says that it’s a way of saying that I trust You, I’m willing to give back some of what You’ve already giving me. But Preacher twists the proper meaning of tithing so that he can take practically half of Elijah’s hard earned fish. As Preacher starts up his con by sweet-talking Elijah, Elijah starts thinking about something that his father had said: “when someone sweet-talks you like this, you got to be real careful with the next words that come out of their mouth” (48). You’d think that after remembering this, Elijah would have had the smarts to just walk away from the man, but Preacher knows how to lure his prey.
Preacher grabs his attention back, and then before you know it, Elijah forgets all about his dad’s advice and gets talked into giving away four of his ten fish to Preacher. And before Elijah can fully understand what had just happened, Preacher escapes with his dinner that Elijah has donated without even realizing it. As Elijah starts walking home after his encounter with Preacher, he starts to think about how a lot of the things that Preacher does aren’t right and how his parents don’t like him. “I’d hear Pa call the Preacher a jackleg man of the Lord... but I was catching on that it waren’t a good thing to be” (53). It’s interesting how Elijah remembers what his father had said, but doesn’t fully comprehend its importance.
In the beginning of Chapter 8, the readers start to fully understand the capability of just how evil Preacher can truly be, this is where we see one of his biggest cons. Preacher offers to take Elijah to the carnival. Elijah knows that he’s not allowed to go. He knows that his best friend and the rest of their class are not allowed to go. But, Elijah desperately wants to know what he is missing out on and why the adults aren’t letting their kids go.
When Preacher first starts the conversation, he starts to guilt/sweet-talk Elijah. He reminds him of a promise that Elijah had made, a promise to help the Settlement, where the most of story takes place and where Elijah and Preacher live. After reminding him of this, Preacher pulls out a piece of paper advertising a carnival. Right away, Elijah tells Preacher that he shouldn’t go, “All the grown folks say we gotta stay away from this. They say there’s gambling and all sorts of horrible things going on there” (104). And Preacher guilts him into saying yes, even though later on in the conversation Elijah says that his parents would never allow it.
Preacher’s final guilt trip seals the deal. He says, “I’d be there to make certain nothing bad happened to you. But, if you’ve changed your mind about helping the Settlement, I understand. It’s easy to talk about being helpful, but actually doing what one has promised can be a lot more difficult” (105). Elijah could see what Preacher was doing. But he actually didn’t mind. “I saw what Preacher was doing, I saw how he was using growned-folk talk to paint me in a corner... And truth be told, I didn’t mind getting painted into this one. What could be more exciting than going to a carnival to see freaks of nature and watching someone getting hypnotized?” (105) Elijah knew very well that he shouldn’t go, but he let himself get talked into going because it sounded fun, and Preacher had promised to take good care of him.
After reading this book I was left in a state of shock. I couldn’t believe some of the things that Elijah had gotten talked into—like going to the carnival and giving Preacher his fish. We can see that Elijah does know right from wrong. He can tell when he is being conned, but he chooses to ignore it. Why?! And why does this book do such a good job of hiding the truth about just how horrible Preacher really is in the beginning of the story? When we are first introduced to Preacher, he seems to be a comical, maybe a little crazy, old man. Because this was our first impression, as readers, we want to stick to it because it’s easier to keep to the initial first impression than to create a new image.
In Elijah’s case, he has known Preacher for a long time, what’s his excuse? For starters, he is young. He is still learning about life’s cruel tricks and isn’t very good at listening to his conscience yet. And also, Preacher is a very deceiving person. He knows how to distract Elijah and how to manipulate him. Curtis does an amazing job getting the reader engaged in this book. He really gets you invested into the characters. He makes you feel bad for Elijah, and he even tricks the readers into thinking that Preacher might be harmless when he really is the bad guy. Elijah is told by many adults in this story to not be around Preacher, but he doesn’t listen to them. He practically only listens to Preacher. Why? I believe that it might be because of how Preacher acts. He acts immaturely. He acts like kid, which is someone who Elijah can relate to. Elijah disobeys his parents so that he can listen to and be around Preacher, which he knows is wrong. His parents clearly didn’t like Preacher. This should have changed Elijah’s and my own perspective on Preacher’s character and how valid his title may be.
I’ve heard many times, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But the truth is: that phrase is way more complicated than I originally thought. Gossip is a horrible thing, but if everyone is pointing to the same conclusion about someone else or something, maybe we should at least consider the other view.
Curtis, Christopher. Elijah of Buxton. New York: Broadway, 2007. Print.
Tunner, O. Michael, and James S. Jacobs. Children’s Literature, Briefly. New Jersey: Upper Saddle, Ohio: Columbus, 2008. Print.