Chris Bohjalian’s, The Buffalo Soldier opens with the death of twin girls at the hands of a flooded Vermont river. The book also ends with a flood which provides a frame to the novel. The dramatic opening thankfully distances the reader by using an omniscient voice.
Two years after the flood the parents of the girls, Terry and Laura Sheldon, agree to foster parent a young black boy. Terry and Laura’s neighbors, Emily and Paul Hebert, give the boy a book on Buffalo Soldiers that follows the life of Sergeant George Rowe and his native American wife, Veronica. Bohjalain briefly sketches the story of Sergeant Rowe as a Buffalo Soldier by using quotes from interviews, newspaper articles and other historical research, as a short preface to each chapter.
The story’s conflict centers around Laura’s and Terry’s different struggles with grief while also adjusting to having the wary youngster, Alfred, in the house who is subtly ostracized for his race in the small rural community.
The catalyst for character growth comes from the Heberts. In their seventies at the time of the novel, they decide to acquire a horse. Mesa, a docile Morgan mare, comes home with the Heberts and Alfred takes care of her likening himself to Sergeant Rowe.
Alfred speaks about need early in the book. “She was being needy again. Needy, he knew, was a hard place to be and he had always avoided it at all costs.” And though he clearly tries to avoid being needy, his needs for a home, family relationships, and a purpose shine through his words. The Heberts, Sheldons and Mesa fulfill those demands in stages throughout the novel and Alfred strives to be like his hero, George Rowe.
I enjoyed the depth provided, by the ancillary tale of Sergeant Rowe. I also enjoyed the heroic ending in a way that I enjoy many fantasy novels where a young man acts bravely to save lives.
At times slow, the book unfolds in six points of view claiming different chapters, each of the Sheldon’s, Pheobe's (the extra-marital love interest's), Alfred’s and the Herberts which are actually dips into Paul’s or Emily’s thoughts.
I mostly enjoyed the Heberts and Alfred, finding the Sheldon’s points of view slower and less compelling.
In his grief Terry cheats on his wife, and I found his justifications over-worked and inconsistent with the original character as if the plot were forced on the wrong man. This is a minor complaint.
Usually, I am not fond of stories where a main character is a preteen, the exception being fantasy fiction, but Bohjalian handles Alfred’s character well. I followed the youngster’s story without too much grumbling. I’m certain some will say he has no right to be in the head of an orphaned black boy, but I enjoyed the character and felt that the author met common ground for all humans.
I read another complaint based on the false tidiness of the ending. I didn’t read the book in the same way. Terry’s extra-marital affair is heart-breaking throughout, and couldn’t have a clean finish. Just because a character exits the stage doesn’t mean she exits our thoughts. In my mind, Bohjalian assures the reader of ensuing complications without continuing the story, relying, instead and the two floods to begin and end the book.
This is the first of Bohjalian’s books I’ve read and I would like to read another. It is a strong story that holds together. My complaints are small. I give this book three stars, because it was a good read, but not a book I will return to.