Elijah’s Angel is, according to the front of the book, “A Story for Chanukah and Christmas.” I know Hanukkah is over this year, and Christmas is over for those of us on the New Calendar. But this book is more than a holiday book. Elijah’s Angel is an introduction to Elijah Pierce.
Pierce was an artist, a wood carver. He’s considered the most important and most influential wood carvers of the 20th century.
The idea that he’d become someone important would never have occurred to anyone when Pierce was born in 1892. His parents, former slaves, had a farm near Baldwyn, Mississippi. He helped on the farm, and his parents expected that he’d farm, too, when he grew up. But when Pierce was nine years old, his older brother gave him a pocket knife, and he began to carve.
He carved animals, mostly. When he was a child, he gave most of them away. When he grew up, he worked as a barber to make a living, and he preached. And he sold many of his carvings. But he gave them away, too.
Elijah’s Angel is the story of a carving that he gave away.
A story of friendship
The book is written by Michael J. Rosen and illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. Both Rosen and Robinson knew Pierce in real life. And the story is based on something that really happened.
Michael was nine years old, Elijah was an old man. Michael was Jewish. Elijah was African American and Christian. None of that seemed particularly important to Rosen. They were just friends.
Michael loved to visit Elijah’s barber shop, and to see his carvings. (Two of his most important carvings, the Book of Wood and Slavery Days, are described in the book.)
Michael wanted to buy one of the carvings for his parents, but he wasn’t sure which one. He knew that some of the carvings were what his parents explained were graven images. He couldn’t give them one of those. But some of the carvings – the animals in particular – would surely be all right.
As Michael was leaving the shop on Christmas Eve (which also happened to be the first night of Hanukkah), Elijah took the decision out of his hands. Elijah gave Michael one of his carved angels.
He wasn’t sure his parents would let him have the angel. He wasn’t sure that God would allow it. But his parents helped him see that, whatever the angel meant to Elijah, to Michael is was a gift of friendship.
And Michael decided to give Elijah a gift of friendship as well. He gives Elijah a menorah he made at Hebrew school.
The art in Elijah’s Angel
Elijah’s Angel is a beautiful book – Robinson’s illustrations are simply breathtaking. Like Rosen, Robinson spent many hours in Pierce’s barber shop. He was her friend and her mentor in art. The illustrations don’t just depict Rosen’s story. They also reflect Robinson’s story, her relationship with Pierce, and her memories of him.
The illustrations are worked in oils, brightly colored and highly stylized. While the style is clearly Robinson’s, they can’t help but remind you of Pierce’s carvings. The heavy black borders around blocks of color suggest the shadows cast by Pierce’s bas relief panels.
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