Wednesday, March 28, 2001

Review - The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian

Each reader will focus on something different in this novel. It contains foster parenting, adultery, troubled youth, indecision, grief, and natural disasters. What I came away with is a three-month snapshot of a couple dealing with grief.

We enter the lives of Laura and Terry Sheldon two years after their daughters' deaths and stay with them for three months. Laura deals with her grief differently and separately from her husband Terry. She has sought out people to talk to, she has immersed herself in her work and she's longing for something more. She becomes full of life when the days are long, and weakens when the days become shorter. Terry vents his grief privately and struggles with his inability to console his wife.

Laura and Terry are unable to have more children of their own. But they feel that bringing a child into their house would help them gain back some common ground they lost when their daughters died, so they enter a foster care program. They hoped they would receive a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old. Instead, they receive a troubled 10-year- old black boy, Alfred.

We see how Laura and Terry each deal with their new responsibility. Everyone in the household wants to be loved unconditionally, but is this possible? Alfred needs permanent parents. Laura feels it necessary to be overprotective. Terry wants a child of his own, a "real" child.

The story is told in third person and each chapter is dedicated to one of the main characters: the mother, the foster child, the father, the neighbors, and the other woman. This presentation allows the reader to become familiar with each character and feel a part of each individual's story. All the relationships in the story ring true. The only physically distracting part of the book is that no dialogue is put in quotes. The book flowed as the grief process does-in waves.

I was particularly touched by the characters of Paul and Emily Hebert, the Sheldon's neighbors. Their roles in the story mostly revolve around helping Alfred feel loved and accepted for who he is through family, history, sharing and learning responsibility. Alfred is inspired by a book they give him on the history of the buffalo soldiers-African-American cavalry soldiers known for their integrity, honor and personal responsibility.

The novel is focused in northern Vermont, where the author lives with his wife and daughter. If you're at all familiar with Lake Champlain or Willoughby, the Green Mountains, Mount Ellen, or Mount Abraham, you'll see familiar sights in the book. The characters live around Cornish but travel to Rutland, Burlington, Montpelier, and St. Johnsbury, among other places.

I enjoyed The Buffalo Soldier-no earth-shattering revelations, just real people dealing with real situations.

The Buffalo Soldier is Chris Bohjalian's eighth novel. He has written for a wide variety of magazines and has been a columnist for Gannett's Burlington Free Press for more than 10 years.

Title: The Buffalo Soldier
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Shaye Areheart Books
ISBN: 978-0375725463
Pages: 432
Price: $14.95