Chris Bohjalian's, "The Buffalo Soldier", is a well-crafted and at times beautifully written novel. Simplified, the book is about human nature when placed under extreme duress due to tragedy. No parent should ever have to bury one child much less face the horror of two young deaths, and any attempt at recovery is by definition going to be traumatic at best. The author creates a couple that tries to travel back to some form of life that is tolerable if not one that will ever be purely happy again. The way they proceed is extreme in the unusual choices they make, and the ingrained difficulties their choice is burdened with.
The setting is Vermont, a very rural Vermont of dirt roads and mountain streams that can still tear apart lives. This is not Burlington by the lake, a city an hours drive from cosmopolitan Montreal. The decision to take a Foster Child in to their home is hardly an easy choice. Many children from these programs have lead itinerant lives at best, and have experienced views of human behavior that no person should see. So when a grieving couple opens their home to a young African American boy who has been bounced about by the system from his original home in Philadelphia, only to be placed in a very rural and very white environment, there are issues for everyone.
The author deals with so many issues that it is not possible to comment on them all, so I choose one that I enjoyed the most. This young boy has the good fortune to have an elderly couple that helps him to learn about his history and define himself, who offer some stability while his foster parents deal with their own demons that are far from confronted much less solved.
This couple has traveled the nation and has brought home every knick-knack they have seen. These are the people that the makers of cheesy souvenirs live for. But more importantly they know this country's history and with a book and a cap with a buffalo on it they change this young man's life. Buffalo soldier was the name given to African American soldiers by Native Americans. It is a name that was given out of respect for these men, men that history too often slights.
The young man learns of the history that caused these men to be honored, and they become for him the role models that he will emulate. This part of the novel was my favorite element; there were many others but none that struck with such power and grace. And that is why my comments for the title of this review are a bit ambivalent. There was much about the book I found to be slow, and some was a bit cliché. However this relationship made the entire book a worthwhile read.
on June 11, 2003
On many levels I enjoyed Bohjalian's The Buffalo Soldier so, why only the 3 stars? I'll begin with what I liked. The historic introduction at the beginning of each chapter. Although, I have a cursory knowledge of Buffalo Soldiers it has made me want to learn more. The development and insight into Alfred's character. Using Alfred as a catalyst to bring about changes in Laura's character, opening her up as it were, was poignant. The secondary characters of the Heberts brought some lightness into a rather dark novel.
But, and now here it comes,I find it difficult to believe that every child in the town would be so callously prejudice. Especially when Alfred is described as handsome, intelligent and athletic. Or that the class teacher is so indifferent to the "new" kid, rather a brutal commentary on the education system in Vermont.
My biggest problems however, were the relationship between Terry and Phoebe,his character, and the ending of the book. First the relationship,this struck me as an everyman's fantasy. A girlfriend/lover that wants nothing from the relationship. Phoebe was just too good to be true, no demands, no expectations and no recriminations. I suppose I am to feel sympathy for Terry because of the death of his daughters. Does this also mean I am to condone infidelity to his wife and indifference to a foster child? If Alfred hadn't saved his life would the distrust/indifference have remained? A rather stringent lesson to prove one's self worth. I found Terry weak, self centered, manipulative and a hypocrite. Never once did Terry or Phoebe consider that eventually the unborn child might want to locate his father and what results that might have on Laura's and Terry's relationship. Infact, the ending was just too pat. Phoebe quietly leaves with no ill will towards Terry, Laura forgives Terry....but wait how can that be as she has no knowledge of the unborn child? Does this suggest a sequel where she will be just as understanding when the "child" comes a knocking on her door 20 years later? How can a relationship exist between Laura and Terry with this rather onimous cloud hanging on the horizon. No, there are too many problems with Terry's character and the author's lack of accountability with it for this to be a satisfying book.
Chris Bohjalian proved in his wonderful novel, "Midwives," that he has a deep understanding of the courage that ordinary people need to survive in a complex and often tragic world. He also showed an uncanny ability to write from both a male and a female perspective. In his latest novel, "The Buffalo Soldier," Bohjalian once again beautifully explores how human relationships are tested by the pressures of life.
The setting is rural Vermont. Bohjalian focuses on a troubled couple, Laura and Terry Sheldon, whose nine-year-old twin daughters die tragically in a flash flood. The Sheldons are grief-stricken and their sorrow spills over into their marriage, threatening to tear it apart. Laura and Terry decide to take in a ten-year-old foster child named Alfred, who is African-American. Alfred is a gentle boy, but he is hesitant to bond with anyone, since he has been moved around regularly from one home to another over the years.
Bohjalian brilliantly describes the ever-changing dynamics in Laura's and Terry's relationship. The introduction of a child into their empty household may be an opportunity for the couple to heal, but Laura seems to relate to the boy while Terry holds back. Fortunately, Alfred is befriended by a wonderful and warm neighbor, Paul Hebert. Paul introduces Alfred to the history of the famed Buffalo soldiers, an African-American regiment that fought in the late 1800's. He also teaches Alfred how to care for and ride a horse. It is heart-warming to watch this reserved child blossom as he begins to form new friendships and as he learns more about himself and his heritage.
Bohjalian switches perspective from one chapter to the next, and he allows us to attain an intimate knowledge of what each character thinks and feels. By the end of the novel, I was deeply invested in the outcome. Occasionally, the dialogue is a bit stilted and there are a few scenes that border on the melodramatic. Overall, however, "The Buffalo Soldier" is a touching reminder that although human beings are fragile, they are also resilient. Loving someone deeply makes us vulnerable to loss, but if we are to achieve a meaningful life, it is a risk worth taking.
on May 4, 2002
"The Buffalo Soldier" proved to me that Chris Bohjalian is a wonderful, timeless storyteller. In this book, the author takes what could be harsh storylines of a loss of one's children, marital infidelity, and interracial adoptions and weaves a story that is a delight to read, with only subtle hints of these harsh issues--they become secondary to the real story of people's lives. He has a wonderful sense of the people in his home state of Vermont, and develops their characters so that you feel like you've known them all of your life. This was a wonderful read! I thorougly enjoyed one of his other books, "Midwives," and now can't wait to read his other works!
on June 9, 2002
Chris Bohjalian has captured the essence of his characters, once again. In THE BUFFALO SOLDIER, a story about grief, marital strife, friendship and neighbors, and the sad past of a little boy trying to survive in the foster care system, Bohjalian manages to pull the reader into the stream of the story easily.
The death of their twin girls has naturally changed Laura and Terry and even two years later we watch as they both continue to deal with their grief, albeit in very different ways. Terry, the cop, and Laura, the animal shelter supervisor, are going to react differently to this tragedy and it's interesting how their job choices reflect their reactions. Bohjalian does this in a very realistic way. Terry wants to be able to control his life, take charge, make things right. This is a very accurate portrayal for a dedicated law enforcement officer. Laura brings another child in their life, Alfred, an African American boy. Not only is this a challenge because his years in foster care have left him distrustful of most everyone, but they are living in Vermont where there are very few other African Americans.
Just as it is Laura's nature to want to help others, protect and love those who don't have someone to care for them, it is Terry's nature to want life to feel more normal, even though he knows it never can.
I was a little disturbed with the ending. It ends well but there were a few questions left unanswered for me. Perhaps Bohjalian is thinking of a sequel in the years to come. Or maybe we can fill in the blanks ourselves.
At any rate, this is another good story by Chris Bohjalian as he continues to make interesting stories from unusual circumstances come alive.
on January 14, 2006
I was disappointed in this book, perhaps because I expected so much more. It had been praised by a few people whose literary judgment I trust, and it just didn't measure up.
The premise was good and interesting, but the characters were lifeless and pat. The boy, whom I liked and was interested in, really wasn't a bit authentic. He was just too good to be true in every way, to the point where I questioned that he had been shuffled around so much in the foster system; nobody would give up this child.
I also couldn't stand the chauvenism in Terry, who impregnated a woman and then acted all along as though he didn't need to bear any responsibility toward the unborn child, as though the only problem was figuring out which woman/life HE wanted. I kept reminding myself that this sort of machismo is in fact realistic, but given Terry's self-righteous, straight-laced, State Trooper image, it really wasn't consistent with his character. Also, as has been mentioned elsewhere here, his mistress was ridiculously generous, thoughtful and wise for someone who was in her predicament to begin with.
The ending was unrealistic too, but I didn't mind, considering the lack of compelling drama throughout the rest of the book. I had heard or read that it had a good ending (meaning exciting), so that kept me reading. The writing itself is overrated I think. It's very plain, like a reporter's--certainly not the kind of writing that appeals to other writers.
Finally, and inexplicably, I paid no attention whatsoever to the italicized bits at the beginning of each chapter--the stuff about the Buffalo Soldiers. At first I did, but they offered nothing in the way of understanding the novel at hand, and I found them boring. He could have made that whole connection a bit more resonant. I'm the type who rushes to the computer to find out more about the historical surroundings of novels when I finish--like reading about Opus Dei and DaVinci after THE DAVINCI CODE and about King Henry IIIX after THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL--but this one left me cold. I still haven't researched the Buffalo Soldiers, and that says something about the author's success in bringing the subject home.
on January 23, 2003
I like Bohjolain's books. They always teach you something. With Midwives, it was about midwifery. With The Law of Similars, we learn about homeopathy. With the Bufallo Soldiers, we learn about the foster care system, about being a cop, about grief after losing a child, and what it's like to be a minority (an African-American boy) in a small town.
Bohjolain's takes the reader along with his well crafted characters and then, doesn't have them do what you think they would or should do. I like that. I can't always predict what his characters are going to do, or predict thier decisions. For example, I expected Terry to claim the child he left in Phoebe, but no, he made a completely unexpected decision.
Bohjolain always leaves an interesting rise at the end of his books. You know you're getting to the end, and where other writers are tying up lose ends, Bohjolain gives us something to get excited about.
And this book, The Buffalo Soldier? what gives with no quotation marks to mark off dialogue? I thought it gave the book a good clean look, but when I read the dialogue out loud, I found myself using a male voice when I should have been using a female voice. Not using quotation marks made the pages cleaner, and I bet it was a lot easier to write, not having to concern one's self with punctuation, but it did get a little, just a little, confusing at times.
Good work though. Give us another story. I'm looking forward to the next one.
I have never read one of Bohjalian's books before even though I had purchased Midwives a few months back (it is still sitting on my shelf), but I guarantee this will not be the last one of his books I read. I have since ordered his last two books and look forward to reading those. This book follows the story of a couple who's twin daughters are killed during a flood, the foster son they take into their home two years later, the elderly couple who live across the street and the single, pregnant girlfriend who lives miles away and has never met any of the other characters except for the twins' father. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters and the story moves forward very rapidly. Although the book is close to 400 pages, the story is not dragged out and I never found myself skimming the pages or flipping forward just to get on with the story (as I have in some other books I've recently read). Every page has a point and each point flows to the next and I never found myself bored or anxious to get on with it - quite the opposite actually. I was sorry when I finished each chapter, wanting to hear more from that particular character only to go on to the next chapter and get just as interested in that character's point of view. I found myself routing for the foster child and mother, laughing at the elderly couple and frustrated and disappointed in the father's younger brother and even some of the father's actions. Descriptions are good and I could easily imagine the towns where the story took place. The story includes a few historical points also about the Buffalo SOldiers since the elder gentleman gives the foster child a book on the subject to read. Each chapter is introduced with a piece of history referring to those times and the Buffalo Soldiers and the reader will learn a little bit more about that time in history. I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading other books by Chris Bohjalian and his next release (whenever that may be - it sems life he spaces them about 18 months apart). If you like Alice Hoffman, you will most likely become a fan of Bohjalian since their styles are similar (characters linked together by a specific incident and stories that flow forward without hestiation). I know that I've become a fan and am happy I chose to read this book.
on May 28, 2002
Strangely enough, after finishing this book, I realized that what kept me reading was more my interest in the outcome of Alfred's life (the foster child) and his relationship with Paul & Emily Hebert (his neighbors), than in the main characters themselves, Laura & Terry Sheldon.
I found them to be very superficial and cold. The author seems to only scratch the surface, of these foster parents, emotions and feelings. Something is missing, Laura is bland & colourless and her husband Terry is self centered & arrogant. I could not feel, (even in the end, them seemed fake) compassion and/or empathy towards this duo, no matter how hard I tried.
All the depth and emotion of this story revolves around the genuine loving attachment that slowly progresses between the Heberts & Alfred and also their mutual affection for each other & a horse named Mesa.
I enjoyed that each chapter began with a little more insight into the history of the United States Calvary. I applaud Chris Bohjalian for introducing the reader to the story of the Buffalo soldiers in such an innovative style.( It merited the third *)
After reading ''Midwives'' by the same author, which surpasses by far ''The Buffalo Soldier'', I must admit being somewhat deceived.
on January 23, 2005
The best thing about THE BUFFALO SOLDIER is the authentic Vermont atmosphere. From the backstreets of Saint Johnsbury to the "multi-purpose room" of an elementary school to the deer camps of the Northeast Kingdom, everything rings true and real as a brand new snowmobile in a snowless front yard on Christmas morning. ((My amazon.com address may be Georgia, but I used to live in White River Jct.))
The plot is Greek tragedy: a Vermont State Trooper and his wife have twin daughters killed in a flash flood. They become foster parents and take in an alienated 10-year-old Black boy, who is tutored about the Buffalo Soldiers (the Negro cavalry of the old West) by the college professor across the street). The trooper has a one-night-stand with a young woman and impregnates her.
Where to begin? There is no dialogue. The author writes very well, so this must not be to cover a weakness, but rather just an obnoxious literary technique. The point-of-view changes with every chapter, from trooper to wife to boy to professor to pregnant girl. I'll grant the professor and trooper are portrayed well, but I didn't find the wife and pregnant girl convincing, and the boy seemed more like a collection of symptoms from a sociology textbook on foster children than a real flesh-and-blood human being.
Many reviewers have commented on the lame ended of the novel, but if you accept it as Greek tragedy, it works on that level. The twin daughters are taken away, replaced with a son, a woman is provided to impregnate, the wise of professor gives counsel, the environment is hostile, there are threads of family strife over generations, so you really shouldn't be surprised by a deus ex machina solution and an improbable ending.
The author keeps wanting to say something important about fatherhood. The importance of the father-child relationship impacts of every character in this novel, but the lessons never aeem to be drawn. It almost begs for deoconstruction -- is the author showing us a brave new world where fatherhood is obsolete, or is he being ironic, showing what calamity awaits?