The Buffalo Soldier, by Chris Bohjalian


Two years after their twin daughters drowned in a spring thaw flood, Terry and Laura Sheldon are still grieving over the loss of their daughters. As the book begins, they take in a foster child, Alfred, who is about the age their daughters would have been had they lived. The relationship does not get off to a good start for a number of reasons. The Sheldons are themselves still recovering, both personally and maritally, from the loss of their daughters. Alfred, having been through several foster homes of various dysfunctional families, cannot believe that this one will be any different from the rest. He prepares for the inevitable day when he will be sent on to the next stop in his foster care circuit and begins stashing non-perishable snacks in his suitcase in order to have familiar comfort food at hand to ease the transition. Terry takes Alfred to task one day for stealing food and presumably also money, accusing the boy of taking advantage of the Sheldons’ good nature to facilitate his runaway flight. When this comes out during a discussion with the social worker assigned to Alfred’s case, it only drives a further wedge between Terry and Laura. The couple separates as a result of this and other stressors on the marriage.

A friendship develops between Alfred and the Sheldons’ neighbors, Alice and Paul Hebert, a couple in their late sixties. Paul has recently acquired a Morgan mare, and pays Alfred four dollars a day to help him care for and exercise the horse, initially to give the boy a needed boost of self-esteem, though this serves as a slightly deus ex machina device to facilitate a solution to the book’s denouement. Negatively, Terry’s brief relationship with a young woman near his hunting cabin results in her becoming pregnant after their lone one night stand…and she decides to keep the baby despite knowing that not only does Terry have no intention of leaving his wife (nor does she wish him to do so) but her own family disapproves of single parenthood without even the acknowledgement of the father’s identity. In the end, she removes herself from the equation by moving out west, and Terry reconciles with Laura…and equally importantly with Alfred. There is an epilogue, eighteen months later, which indicates Alfred has become emotionally as well as legally a true member of the household.

There are a couple of sub-plots related to one another. The primary one is that Alfred is African-American, and the book is set in Vermont, the second-whitest state in the Union–falling between Maine and New Hampshire in the percentage of Caucasians in the state’s population–and the majority of the non-Caucasian residents are in the state’s one city of any size, Burlington. Not surprisingly, Alfred and the locals have some trouble adjusting to one another. The secondary connected one is a discussion, largely through quotes at the beginning of the chapters but also in characters’ discussions, of the “buffalo soldiers“, members of the African-American regiments formed shortly after the U.S. Civil War, so nicknamed by the American Indians whom they were fighting at the time either because of their tenacious ferocious fighting abilities or because their hair resembled buffalo wool, though probably a combination of the two. Alfred takes this to heart as his friendship with Paul Hebert grows stronger, and Paul tells him more about U.S. history, and African-Americans’ place in it. While race is an important part of the book, it’s handled with a light touch; the formation of a “family” (the Sheldons, Alfred and the Heberts) through affection is by far more important to the book.

There’s nothing genre about this book; it’s a straightforward story about the stresses that force families apart and the ties that bind them back together again. It’s an interesting readable take on what it might be like for a foster child shuttling through the system, and particularly for a black child attempting to integrate into an overwhelmingly white community, who, though in the main well-meaning have no grasp of cultural diversity whatsoever, much less whether Alfred himself considers himself to be a member of any particular U.S. subculture or simply mainstream. I’ll confess I have a couple of problems with the book: I’m not crazy about how the affair and resulting pregnancy was handled, given the main point of the story involved Alfred’s own lack of paternal involvement, and I’m not sure how accurate the African American perspective is. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what to recommend, at least to readers who aren’t keen on genre fiction, other than Bohjalian’s other work.

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