The Buffalo Soldier

( 30 )

Overview

With his trademark emotional heft and storytelling skill, bestselling author Chris Bohjalian presents this resonant novel about the formation of an unconventional family–the ties that bind it, and the strains that pull it apart. Two years after their twin daughters died in a flash flood, Terry and Laura Sheldon, a Vermont state trooper and his wife, take in a foster child. His name is Alfred; he is ten years old and African American. And he has passed through so many indifferent...

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The Buffalo Soldier

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Overview

With his trademark emotional heft and storytelling skill, bestselling author Chris Bohjalian presents this resonant novel about the formation of an unconventional family–the ties that bind it, and the strains that pull it apart. Two years after their twin daughters died in a flash flood, Terry and Laura Sheldon, a Vermont state trooper and his wife, take in a foster child. His name is Alfred; he is ten years old and African American. And he has passed through so many indifferent families that he can’t believe that his new one will last.

In the ensuing months Terry and Laura will struggle to emerge from their shell of grief only to face an unexpected threat to their marriage; Terry’s involvement with another woman. Meanwhile, Alfred cautiously enters the family circle, and befriends an elderly neighbor who inspires him with the story of the buffalo soldiers, the black cavalrymen of the old West. Out of the entwining and unfolding of their lives, The Buffalo Soldier creates a suspenseful, moving portrait of a family, infused by Bohjalian’s moral complexity and narrative assurance.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Readers who have come to expect mysterious circumstances of death and new age disciplines as standard elements in the novels of Chris Bohjalian will find neither in The Buffalo Soldier. But the Vermont landscape and plainspoken New Englanders that are another of the bestselling author's trademarks are unmistakably present in his eighth novel, a touching tale of love and loss, rejuvenation of life, and reclamation of hope after unthinkable tragedy.

Vermont state trooper Terry Sheldon and his wife, Laura, have lost their twin daughters to the indiscriminate currents of a flash flood. Two years after their daughters' death, having learned they are unable to conceive again, they seek to fill the void in their family by taking in a ten-year-old African-American foster child. Alfred, a sensitive yet withdrawn boy, has experienced more than his share of adversity, and he struggles to navigate the unfamiliar waters he encounters in this all-white, rural community within a family in crisis. Alfred's love and trust are not easily gained or given, and though Laura and the boy steadily develop an attachment, Terry fails to forge any real connection with the seemingly indifferent child. Frustrated by the widening chasm in his marriage, incapable of accepting Alfred into his heart, and unable to acceptably express his grief, Terry enters into a brief extramarital affair that results in an unplanned pregnancy. The potential dissolution of Terry and Laura's marriage threatens to plunge Alfred back into the maelstrom of institutional care. All could be lost unless the intrepid Buffalo Soldier -- as Alfred comes to style himself, after the African-American cavalry troopers whose legacy of integrity, honor, and personal responsibility inspires him -- can rescue them in time.

This quietly soulful novel speaks directly to the heart. It's an elegantly told story of salvation and the surprising places in which it can be found. Chris Bohjalian creates unaffected characters that are gentle and steadfast, vulnerable and fallible -- in a word, human. Expertly crafted with distinctive style, The Buffalo Soldier is a worthy addition to an already impressive body of work. (Ann Kashickey)

From the Publisher
“In The Buffalo Soldier, Bohjalian proves once again that he's a master novelist.” –The Boston Globe

“Bohjalian plunges [his characters] into a dramatic situation so powerful that even their quiet voices cannot fail to be heard. . . .The Buffalo Soldier is imbued with hope and the possibility for redemption.” –The Washington Post
 
“Bohjalian gives us fine-grained detail and beautifully observed domestic psychology.” –The Los Angeles Times
 
“Beautifully wrought. . . . A moving account of personal strength and the joy of belonging.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“If it's captivating literature you're after, The Buffalo Soldier earns a solid A.” –Entertainment Weekly
 

From The Critics
Earnest, powerful, The Buffalo Soldier takes its time with ordinary lives: It's a long, involving tale of love and lamentations, home and heartache, written with intelligence and generosity of spirit. Those qualities, unflashy and dependable, typify the writing of Chris Bohjalian, a weekly columnist for the Burlington Free Press who hit it big in 1997 with his fourth novel, Midwives. Combining a legal thriller's momentum with a mildly provocative commentary on alternative medicine, that story was a ready-made selection for Oprah's Book Club. Midwives established Bohjalian as a chronicler of working-class life. The small-town Vermont in which his fiction is set is an intriguing one: of snow and rivers and roadside diners, yes, but also of characters, oftentimes tight-lipped and complex, who are gripped by private struggles. It's an off-kilter Norman Rockwell vision, with darker shadows.

The Buffalo Soldier takes us deeper inside. The story begins in anguish when twin nine-year-old girls drown in a flood of biblical ferocity. In extreme close-up, we witness the aftermath of tragedy: "Their eyes were closed, their hair was tangled with thin twigs and leaves, and there were great clods of mud in the small hollows cast by their joints. Their bodies were bent into shapes that no living person—even a contortionist—could bear." The girls are the only children of highway patrolman Terry Sheldon and his wife, Laura; Bohjalian's story will become one of coping, of coming to terms with the devastation.

Terry, stoic, macho, a kind of competent, hard-worked state trooper straight out of a Bruce Springsteen song, reels quietly and retreats intothe busy solace of his job. Laura simply retreats. A worker at the local Humane Society, she occasionally drags herself into the shelter, seeking the comfort of the orphaned animals. Mainly, however, she withers. "There were months when she didn't believe she'd ever get better—and, what was more important for everyone around her, it was clear that she didn't want to. For a time, for her, there had been Prozac. And there had been the church, though she wasn't exactly sure there had been God."

It's Laura's idea to adopt a child. Into their lives, the couple brings ten-year-old Alfred, already a scarred veteran of foster homes. He's shipped to the Sheldons' hamlet from Burlington, a town big enough to have at least accommodated his sense of difference. He's an alien in this new place not only because of his history (the mother who abandoned him was a prostitute), but also because of his heritage. He's just about the only black kid for miles.

Around Alfred, secretive, shell-shocked, silent (his initial sullenness mocks the Sheldons' memories of their girls' bright laughter), a small world will explode. The boy is startled especially by Laura's kindness, but he's learned enough never to trust. One of the book's more affecting scenes finds Alfred hoarding food and utensils in his closet: He's never sure when he'll be forced to move again. "If you only took one or two things a week, the grownups rarely figured out that you were building up a stash," he reasons. While Alfred's relationship with Laura is strained, his relationship with Terry is virtually nonexistent. The two simply can't connect.

Terry's distance from the family only intensifies with yet another twist of fate. On a hunting trip, Terry indulges in an illicit tryst, a tumble less passionate than desperate. In a melodramatic turn of events, the woman becomes pregnant. Laura's discovery of the betrayal, Terry's eventual remorse and his new lover's alternating anger and clutching are all handled sensitively by Bohjalian. What elevates The Buffalo Soldier, however, is the presence of young Alfred. As the adults in his newfound home fret, dissemble and nearly disintegrate, the boy becomes stronger and eventually comes into his own.

He is helped by a neighbor, an old man who, like Alfred, feels out of place in the community. He gives Alfred a book on the buffalo soldiers of the 1860s, black riders in the U.S. cavalry. For Alfred, those riders become dream heroes, inspirations. An experienced horseman himself, the old mentor even teaches Alfred to ride.

The novel climaxes with a flood that echoes the book's beginning and provides both a catalyst for Terry and Laura's reunion and a moment in which Alfred's dreams of heroism become real. We see him on horseback at the end, achieving at least a temporary release: "His whole body starting forward with the big animal in two-point and then—the horse's legs extended before and behind her, a carousel pony but real, the immense thrust invisible to anyone but the boy on the creature's back—he was rising, rising, rising.... And aloft."

While Bohjalian isn't the page-turning storyteller that, say, Stephen King and Alice Hoffman are, he may be something rarer yet equally fine, a remarkably empathetic writer who cares sufficiently about his characters to invest them with genuine warmth, an almost tragic dimension that's rare in mainstream, accessible fiction. With this novel, he's again proved himself a valuable resource—an author of concern and attention. With imagined lives as real as Terry's, Laura's and Alfred's, he's given voice to grief, loneliness, hardship and, ultimately, hope.
—Paul Evans
Publishers Weekly
The capricious ways of nature frame this eighth novel by the popular Bohjalian (Midwives; Trans-Sister Radio). Several years after the devastating loss of their nine-year-old twin daughters in a flood, Vermont residents Laura and Terry Sheldon decide to adopt a child. When a state agency grants them a taciturn 10-year-old African-American boy on a foster-parent trial basis, they acquiesce, albeit with some reluctance. The trial is no less unsettling for the child, Alfred, who has already endured separations and is aware of his solitary status in the small, white town. What will save the boy, and lend poignancy to the novel, is a growing friendship with an elderly neighbor, Paul, a retired teacher, who accepts him without preconditions. He gives the boy a book about a post-Civil War western black cavalry unit, the Buffalo Soldiers, and a cap with a picture of their buffalo symbol and then invites the boy to learn to ride his horse. Alfred, moved by the book, responds to Paul and begins to break out of his isolation. Bohjalian writes honestly and often movingly, but his characters do not escape stereotyping. Terry, a uniformed state trooper, is all tough policeman when he catches Alfred arranging a hidden stash of food. He angrily accuses him of thievery, insensitive to Alfred's fear that he may be rejected and need to escape. Laura, an unhappy, colorless character, is only lent dignity by her growing love for the boy and a willingness to understand him. In an echo of the book's opening scene, another natural disaster brings the novel to a handy but credibility-straining conclusion. Bohjalian's facile handling of both plot and narrative makes for fast reading, but fans may conclude that the result feels rushed and cursory. 13-city author tour. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Bohjalian crafts a masterful story of loss and love set against the vagaries of northern Vermont's weather. The six different voices heard are varied and distinct. From the foster child, Alfred, who finds a connection to the Buffalo Cavalry Soldiers of the past, and his foster parents, Terry and Laura Sheldon, who are dealing with the earlier loss of their twin daughters in a flood, to the strong secondary characters of Phoebe and elderly neighbors Paul and Emily, the author has created a community of conflict and understanding of both grief and need. Alison Fraser deftly captures each of these very different voices. The only flaw is the lack of audio identifiers for the cassettes. Highly recommended.DJoyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It sounds like a TV movie of the week, but Bohjalian's eighth novel, among them the Oprah-picked Midwives (1997), works hard and pretty successfully to transcend the hackneyed scenario of parents adopting a child after losing their own. After a sudden flood kills the daughters of Laura and Terry Sheldon, a highway patrolman and his wife, they struggle for two years to cope with the loss. Finally Laura, unable to have more children, persuades her husband to take in a foster child. And so Albert arrives, a ten-year-old African-American boy-this in an all-white rural Vermont town. Neither a child from hell nor a particularly lovable one, Albert has endured the routine cruelties of the foster care system, and he enters the family with little hope of change. Although he's the only African-American in town, however, he suffers surprisingly little overt racism. But plenty of insensitivity. "I am completely color-blind," announces his teacher proudly. "I treat all my students as if they were white." His classmates tolerate him, but their schoolboy cliques remain closed. Yearning for friendship, he finds it in an elderly neighbor, a retired teacher who allows him to care for his horse and teaches him about the buffalo soldiers, black cavalry who served in the American west after the Civil War. The story would be half its length but for stepfather Terry's one-night stand with a young woman who becomes pregnant. Although she's not willing to break up his marriage, Terry finds himself yearning for a child of his own, and their affair resumes. Devastated when she learns of it, Laura demands that he move out. He does, but the crisis is resolved and the marriage endures. Another that may be in the Oprahmode, a tale of family torment. But Oprah's picks as a rule have literary merit, and this is no exception. Despite a conventional plot, Bohjalian's characters ring true, and he writes with insight and feeling.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375725463
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/25/2003
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 367,713
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eight novels, including Midwives, (a # 1 New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club® selection), Trans-Sister Radio, and The Buffalo Soldier—as well as Idyll Banter, a collection of magazine essays and newspaper columns.

His work has been translated into seventeen languages, been published in twenty countries, and twice become acclaimed movies, (“Midwives” and “Past the Bleachers”).  In 2002 and he won the New England Book Award.

Biography

It was March 1986 when Chris Bohjalian made a decision that would have an incalculable impact on his writing. He and his wife had just hailed a taxi home to Brooklyn after a party in Manhattan's East Village when they suddenly found themselves on a wild and terrifying 45-minute ride. The crazed cabbie, speeding through red lights and ignoring stop signs, ultimately dropped the shaken couple off... in front of a crack house being stormed by the police. It was then that Bohjalian and his wife decided that the time had come to flee the city for pastoral Vermont. This incident and the couple's subsequent move to New England not only inspired a series of columns titled "Idyll Banter" (later compiled into a book of the same name), but a string of books that would cause Bohjalian to be hailed as one of the most humane, original, and beloved writers of his time.

While Bohjalian's Manhattan murder mystery A Killing in the Real World was a somewhat quiet debut, follow-up novels (many of which are set in his adopted state) have established him as a writer to watch. A stickler for research, he fills his plotlines with rich, historically accurate details. But he never loses sight of what really draws readers into a story: multi-dimensional characters they can relate to.

The selection of his 1997 novel Midwives for Oprah's Book Club established Bohjalian as a force to be reckoned with, igniting a string of critically acclaimed crowd pleasers. His literary thriller The Double Bind was a Barnes & Noble Recommends pick in 2007.

Good To Know

Bohjalian's fascination with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald extends beyond the author's prominent influence on The Double Bind. In an interview with Loaded Shelf.com, Bohjalian estimated that he owns "at least 42 different editions of books by or about F. Scott Fitzgerald."

. Two of Chris Bojalian's novels have been adapted into critically acclaimed TV movies. An adaptation of Past the Bleachers with Richard Dean Anderson was made in 1995, and a version of Midwives starring Sissy Spacek and Peter Coyote debuted in 2001.

In our interview with Bohjalian, he shared some fascinating and fun facts about himself:

"I was the heaviest child, by far, in my second-grade class. My mother had to buy my pants for me at a store called the "Husky Boys Shop," and still she had to hem the cuffs up around my knees. I hope this experience, traumatizing as it was, made me at least marginally more sensitive to people around me."

"I have a friend with Down syndrome, a teenage boy who is capable of remembering the librettos from entire musicals the first or second time he hears them. The two of us belt them out together whenever we're driving anywhere in a car.

"I am a pretty avid bicyclist. The other day I was biking alone on a thin path in the woods near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and suddenly before me I saw three bears. At first I saw only two, and initially I thought they were cats. Then I thought they were dogs. Finally, just as I was approaching them and they started to scurry off the path and into the thick brush, I understood they were bears. Bear cubs, to be precise. Which is exactly when their mother, no more than five or six feet to my left, reared up on her hind legs, her very furry paws and very sharp claws raised above her head in a gesture that an optimist might consider a wave and guy on a bike might consider something a tad more threatening. Because she was standing on a slight incline, I was eye level with her stomach -- an eventual destination that seemed frighteningly plausible. I have never biked so fast in my life in the woods. I may never have biked so fast in my life on a paved road."

"I do have hobbies -- I garden and bike, for example -- but there's nothing in the world that gives me even a fraction of the pleasure that I derive from hanging around with my wife and daughter."

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    1. Hometown:
      Lincoln, Vermont
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      White Plains, New York
    1. Education:
      Amherst College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

It rained throughout September and October, and people made jokes about Biblical floods before the Sheldon girls drowned. But their jokes weren't serious, because there were intermittent days when the clouds would continue on their way to the east and leave behind nothing but blue skies and crisp autumn air. If people worried about anything, they fretted over the numbers of leaf peepers and flatlanders who hadn't made their customary fall pilgrimages to Vermont that year—and what effect that lost revenue might have on their purses—or they complained about the mud.

After all, the fall rains had made the ground as boggy as March, and the earth showed no signs of freezing up soon. The dirt roads were so laden with runnels that drivers would wince as they lurched their cars forward, while the paved ones often were layered with diaphanous sheets of moisture that in the night reflected a vehicle's headlights like mirrors.

Certainly the water was high in the lakes: Bomoseen and Champlain to the west of the Green Mountains, that range of hills that rose like a great animal's spine across the vertical center of the state, and Willoughby and Memphremagog to the east. Likewise, the rivers of any size often had small crests of albescent foam. There must have been a half-dozen days when the counties north of Rutland had lived with flash-flood advisories and warnings, especially the two occasions when the remnants of late-season Caribbean hurricanes tracked deep into New England and dumped torrents of rain onto ground that was already soaked, and into lakes and rivers that already had about all the water they could handle. One Saturday in late October the Cornish Volunteer Fire Company went so far as to move its two attack pumpers and heavy rescue truck over the bridge that spanned the Gale River, so the vehicles would be on the more populated side of the water if the bridge was brought down by the rapids.

That had happened once before: The original bridge had washed away in the Great Flood of 1927, on the very day that S. Hollister Jackson, the state's lieutenant governor, had drowned in another part of the state when his car stalled in a rivulet on the road near his house and he tried to walk home through the waters. Instead he had been swept away in the current, his body washing up a mile downriver in Potash Brook.

But the rivers never topped their banks the fall the Sheldon girls died, at least not while the phantasmagoric red and yellow leaves remained on the trees, and lake water only oozed into the basements of the people who lived on the shore. For most of northern Vermont the rains were a mere inconvenience.

The hunters traipsed into the woods that November despite the storms and the showers. They trudged along paths in which they sunk ankle-deep in wet leaves, their boots sometimes swallowed in turbid mountain runoff, and even the thinner tree branches would whip water in their faces when they gently pushed them aside as they walked.

On the second day of deer season, a Sunday, the Sheldon girls were playing with their friend Alicia Montgomery. It had rained heavily all Friday night, Saturday, and much of Sunday morning—dropping close to eight inches in the thirty-six-hour period.

A little past two the rain stopped, and the three girls donned their raincoats and mud boots and wandered outside. They, like so many children that autumn, had been cooped up indoors for whole weekends at a time, and any opportunity to run outside to jump and shriek was taken. Alicia's mother, a woman in her late forties who had three sons older than Alicia, assumed they were going to slosh in the mud around the family's swing set in the backyard, or see how much water had trickled into the wooden clubhouse Alicia's older brothers had built on the property some years before. She thought she might have told them to stay away from the river, but she admitted she honestly wasn't sure. Certainly her daughter didn't recall any such warning.

The Sheldon girls were nine, and they were twins—though not identical twins. They were small-boned, but not at all frail-looking. Rather, with their long legs and arms, they reminded some people of baby colts: They were known for running everywhere, though Megan had never shown any interest in organized sports. Hillary had, but not Megan. Their hair was just a shade closer to blond than brown, and very, very fine. It fell to their shoulders. Hillary was likely to wear her hair down, except on those days when she was playing youth soccer—then she would allow her mother to put it back in a ponytail. Megan usually had her mother braid her hair in the morning, or try one of the bolder statements—a poodle pony or a French twist—that she found described in a hairstylist's handbook she had bought at a yard sale for a dime.

Alicia had been more Hillary's friend than Megan's, because she, too, loved sports. Some days it was just easier for everyone, however, if the twins played together. The two were in the same Girl Scout troop and the same classroom at school, and it couldn't have been otherwise. The small town only had one Girl Scout troop and one classroom filled with fourth-graders. There were only so many eight-, nine-, and ten-year-old girls in the whole village, and so the pair tended to be together more often than they were apart.

Most years, the Gale River meandered lazily through the canyon it had carved over centuries through Cornish and Durham. The water ran down from the mountains, working its way west through rocks and boulders into the Otter Creek, and then, eventually, into Lake Champlain. In summer, the water fell to barely a foot or two in some sections, though there were always areas where it was considerably deeper and people would congregate in large groups to swim or in small groups to fish. The river had stretches that were rich with rainbow and brown trout.

At its thinnest point, the Gale narrowed to fifteen feet; at its widest, it swelled to fifty.

The water paralleled the road that linked Cornish with the more substantial village of Durham, the asphalt and aqua almost perfectly aligned for close to six miles. The riverbanks were steeply pitched, and thick with moss and oak and maple saplings. There were clusters of raspberry bushes that were resplendent with claret-red fruit in July. The side of the river opposite the road was forest until you reached the small collection of houses and public buildings that most people considered the Cornish village center: the elementary school, a church, and a general store on one side of the water, a fire department and Little League baseball field on the other. Depending upon the angle of the road, the river could be either obvious or completely invisible.

Occasionally people swam naked in those sections where the river could not be seen from the street.

The montgomery family lived no more than a hundred yards from the section of the Gale River that was traversed by the bridge—the very bridge over which the fire company had moved its trucks a few weeks earlier. On summer nights when their windows were open, the family could hear the water as it burbled through the thin clove next to the road.

The Sheldons lived outside of the tiny village, on the street that led past the Cousinos' dairy farm and on to the cemetery. That meant Hillary and Megan usually only visited the river in the summer, when they might venture to the swimming hole most frequented by the families with younger children—a section of the river that formed a cozy lagoon near a waterfall, and the depth rose to five or six feet. You could feel a slight current in the spot, but it wasn't enough to pull one from the pool.

To get there, either one of their parents or the parents of one of their friends would have to drive them. You couldn't walk to that swimming hole—not from the town or from their house—and on the hottest summer days there would be a conga line of cars and trucks parked as far to the side of the winding road as possible. Often an automobile would pull in so close to the brush that everyone would have to exit the vehicle on the driver's side.

The waters were high the day the Sheldon girls drowned—according to Alicia, this alone had drawn the three of them to the Gale—and there was in fact a flood warning. But there had been flood warnings on any given day throughout the fall, and no one was unduly alarmed.

While tromping aimlessly through the mud in the Montgomery family's yard, the three girls heard the low roar of the high water in the distance, and—despite the fact that the rain had resumed in earnest—went to see just how close to the bank the river really was. The general store was open until three on Sunday afternoons, and periodically that day people had ventured to either the bridge or the bank itself after getting their newspaper, cigarettes, or milk, and watched the water as it tumbled by. The waves weren't yet lapping at the very tops of the riverbank, but they were close. Alicia recalled that almost all of the adults who wandered by had remarked in some way on the whitewater, raising their voices so they could be heard over the sound of the rapids.

Just before two-thirty, Jeremy Stern left the general store with a six-pack of beer and a frozen pizza, and glanced at the bridge where the three nine-year-old girls were standing. Far down the street that led from the village up into the mountains he heard someone honking madly on a car horn. The toots were distant, but there was a frenzied quality to them. He returned to his own pickup to drive toward them, wondering what the fuss was all about and whether there was anything he could do to help. He backed into the street, not realizing that the person who was pounding furiously on his car horn was actually driving into the village as fast as he could, hoping to warn people that the Gale was already over its banks up on the mountain, and a wall of water was sure to hit the town any minute.

Other than Alicia Montgomery, Jeremy was the last person to see the Sheldon girls when they were alive.

The water would carve chasms in the road that were forty feet deep and, in one case, forty-five feet wide. Wherever the road bent to the south, there was at the very least erosion of the dirt beneath the asphalt, and in four cases there was complete destruction of the pavement—massive holes hewed abruptly into the hillsides. It was a miracle that the half-dozen or so cars on the road that moment were in sections of pavement that survived the flash flood, and so none of the motorists were hurt. Granted, the Willards' car was trapped for a week and a half between two canyons, and the elderly couple had to traverse one of the deep holes in the ground by foot to get home that afternoon. But they made it. Other cars had to turn back, returning to either Cornish or Durham.

And the property damage was immense. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would spend a month in the county—a week in Cornish alone. People who lived along the river lost the washing machines, dryers, and furnaces they kept in their basements. Small structures were upended and swept downriver, where they were smashed against the remains of a modest hydroelectric plant—largely boulders and cement pilings now—the power company had built along the river in 1922.

It had been the flood of 1927 that destroyed the generating station, so that the only traces left were a part of the foundation below the waterline and the concrete buttresses above it.

Once the wall of water had passed, there was an enormous heap of scrap wood at the site of the old plant, a mound easily as large as the woodpiles at the state's landfills and dumps. There were parts of two small barns there, including the Nuners' elegant carriage barn, and a gazebo. There were at least a half-dozen of the small outbuildings and lean-tos people used to store their sap buckets and plastic sugaring tubes, any tools they were likely to use outdoors, and their snowmobiles or their boats.

These items crashed into the power station stanchions as well, and usually broke apart.

The Murrays lost both of their horses, and the Dillons lost all three of their sheep. The animal carcasses somehow wound their way through the dam of debris by the old generator site, and washed ashore six miles away, where the river forked into a second branch that wound its way through the considerably larger towns of Durham, New Haven, and Middlebury.

The village Little League field was flooded, as was the library. The library sat in a room beside the town clerk's office, and it lost its entire collection of children's books—every book, that is, that wasn't checked out at that moment—because those books were kept on the lowest shelves and the water inside the building climbed to three feet before it started to recede.

The center of the town and a great many of the homes with basements that filled with water smelled liked river mud for days: earthy and musty and—because of the havoc that had been wrought—a little putrid.

The only fatalities, however, were Hillary and Megan Sheldon.

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Reading Group Guide

1. How does the initial portrait of Alfred [p. 17] establish his sense of alienation in Cornish? What else does this chapter reveal about Alfred, his self-image, and the image he wants to project to the world? How does Bohjalian use specific language and physical details to convey Alfred’s point of view?

2. What is your first impression of Laura? Does the description of her behavior with Alfred [pp. 26–28] make you question her decision to take in a child? Do you think her reaction is common among foster parents entrusted with older, more independent children or are they in some way unique to her situation? Why is the idea of Alfred discovering her daughters’ graves disturbing to her [p. 27]? What insights do her private thoughts, as well as her conversation with Terry [p. 32], offer into her own assessment of her ability to love and care for a child?

3. “There were months when [Laura] believed she’d never get better—and what was more important for everyone around her, it was clear that she didn’t want to” [p. 28]. What evidence is there of her reluctance to move on with her life? Why is she unable to draw comfort and strength from the bereavement group and her friends and neighbors?

4. In the aftermath of the drowning, Terry Sheldon retreats into his work. Is this simply an indication of the importance of his profession in reestablishing a normal life after the tragedy or does it say something about his emotional make-up? Is the way he handles his grief related to his training and work as a state trooper or do you think his behavior is typical of most men?

5. How do Terry’s doubts about taking Alfred in differ from Laura’s? Do you think he is right to be concerned about his ability to relate to an African-American child [p. 43]? Should foster care agencies make an effort to place children in familiar environments (in Alfred’s case, a more urban, more integrated setting) or is the most important thing finding a safe, caring home for a child?

6. Which partner do you think is more responsible for the estrangement between Laura and Terry? To what extent does Laura’s lack of interest in sex, as well as her emotional withdrawal, explain Terry’s attraction to Phoebe? Do you think that he is justified in feeling that Alfred’s presence has made him “irrelevant” to Laura’s wellbeing? What other factors play a part in his decision to continue seeing Phoebe, despite his feelings of guilt? What was your reaction to his musings about his choice between making a family with his “real child” and remaining with Laura and Alfred [pp. 201–202, 220–22]? Is Phoebe completely honest with Terry—and with herself—about what she wants and expects from their relationship?

7. Paul Herbert’s empathy and generosity make a tremendous difference in Alfred’s life. Why is he able to break through Alfred’s shell? How does the way Paul talks to him (for example, their first conversation about the buffalo soldiers [pp. 131–134]) differ from the conversations between Laura and Alfred? What does his friendship with Alfred offer Paul? What do you think would have happened to Alfred without Paul’s presence in the town?

8. The confrontation between Terry and Alfred [pp. 250–252] is one of the most powerful and poignant incidents in the book. What threads of the story come together in this scene and its immediate aftermath? What does it reveal about the reasons for the antipathy between Alfred and Terry? Do you think that Terry allows his emotions to overtake his sense of reason, and if so, why? Why does he tell Alfred not to discuss the incident with Laura? Why does Alfred agree to remain silent?

9. The novel begins and ends with floodwaters engulfing the town. Why is a flood a potent metaphor for framing the events of the novel?

10. What purpose do the passages from the book about the buffalo soldiers, which introduce each chapter, have in the unfolding of the plot and your sense of the changes that Alfred is undergoing? Do they cast any light on the other characters? Which quotations did you find particularly significant?

11. What role does the setting play in the novel? How does Bohjalian bring to life both the positive and negative aspects of a small-town community in describing how people treat Laura and Terry after the accident? To what extent are Alfred’s difficulties in fitting in attributable to the fact that he is the only black person in Cornish? Should Laura have reacted more forcefully to the insensitive or simply foolish remarks she hears around town and from his teacher [pp. 88–89]? Do you think she and Terry should have done more to help Alfred make friends by talking to other parents, teachers, etc.?

12. Although the chapters in The Buffalo Soldier focus on each of the characters in turn, the events are related in an objective, third-person voice. Why does you think Bohjalian chose to use a third person narrator rather than having each character speak in his or her own voice? Does this strengthen or weaken your involvement with the story and the individual characters? Which portraits do you think are the strongest? Does this have to do with the way Bohjalian presents them or with their roles within the story itself?

13. In his previous books, Bohjalian explored such topics as midwifery, homeopathic medicine, and transsexuality. In what ways does The Buffalo Soldier represent a departure for him? If you have read Midwives, The Law of Similars, or Trans-Sister Radio, what similarities do you see between them and The Buffalo Soldier? Are there themes that recur throughout his work?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 30 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 30 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2011

    An Enduring and Memorable Story

    The characters are so well portrayed and explored, it's as if they become your 'neighbors.' This is an uplifting and affirming story about bonds which are lost, broken, found, strengthened and cherished. There's a vivid portrayal of the community, and how the environment affects them. I found the boy's bond with the horse an especially heartwarming and momentous aspect of the story. I'm a fan of Bohjalian, and have read all but one of his books....for a long time, I didn't read 'Buffalo' because it involved loss of young children, and I was afraid I would just fall apart over that aspect. While it is a very sad story, it does not remain or linger there. This author achieves such conscious, understanding accounts of relationships--especially authentic between the foster mother and the boy. I wish I could give an 'exceeds 5 stars' rating.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2012

    I love reading

    Cant wait to read this book i love reading

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2011

    Compelling read

    This is a very compelling book with each of the characters fully developing without the sterotypical ending or resolutions. Chris Bohjalian has a way of capturing the reader's attention and never letting go. This is the second book of his I've read (Midwives was the first). I'm hooked.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2010

    Great Read!

    I was completely absorbed with the characters in this very touching and complicated story about placing Alfred, a foster child, with an emotionally broken family he came to live with in Vermont. Having read this book while on a recent trip to Ireland, I can recommend this is an excellent read for anyone. Chris Bohjalian's stories are quite interesting as a whole, although the most recent book "Secrets of Eden" I found was not for me. By far, The Buffalo Soldier is the most interesting read by Mr. Bohjalian. I have read The Double Bind, Skeletons at the Feast, and Midwives, all of which are worth reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 28, 2010

    EXCELLENT!

    I particularly enjoyed this novel. I am a definite fan of Chris Bohjalain, and book by book I love his work even more. The Buffalo Soldier is a beautiful story of grief and pain, and how people heal against all odds. It is impossible not to love Alfred (the foster child) and it is especially interesting how the author ties some history of the buffalo soldiers into the beginning of each chapter. As many Bohjalain reviewers touch upon his fantastic ability to address social issues in his writing, he certainly nails the foster care system in VT. with this book. This is a truly beautiful and poignant story...it is a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 3, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    wonderful story...

    The Buffalo Soldier is a complex tale of morals and emotions. I loved it. I loved how the book was written with the chapters alternating between the main characters so the reader gets to see the whole picture. I was able to sympathize with each character and understand why they did the things they did. Bohjalian did a wonderful job creating his characters; Terry, the stereotypical macho highway patrolman. His fragile wife Laura, who is still grieving the loss of her children. Alfred, the somewhat troubled foster child who is seemingly the only black person in miles. And probably my favorite character, Paul, the retired professor who is the first to bond with Alfred. The Buffalo Soldier is a journey of frail and fractured lives trying to grasp the roots to form a family. I couldn't put the book down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 2, 2013

    Great read!

    This is a very good book. At first the title kind of threw me off and I thought it was something I would not be interested in. I could not put this one down. The characters really come to life and I felt like I knew them. I loved the whole story and the ending was great.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2007

    Consummate Bohjalian

    Chris Bohjalian has again here crafted a story with characters that remind the reader of him- or herself...decent and well-intended but flawed and pulled apart by life's unexpected twists and turns, and dismayed by our own reactions to them. A good read. I also always seem to learn something new when I read Mr. Bohjalian's books, whether it be midwifery, alternative medicine or the world of the Buffalo Soldier.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2004

    Hard to put down

    I wasn't too crazy about Midwives, but our book club decided to read The Buffalo Soldier so I gave the author another chance. I like this book much better. The characters were real and interesting, the areas of Vermont were well described and familiar to me. I enjoyed learning about the Buffalo Soldiers and will continue to learn about them, and add them to my other historical persuits. The ending was way to dramatic and way over the top. It was exciting but not believable. I could think of several better endings that would have made it a much better book. I still would recommend it and enjoyed the character development.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2002

    Best Yet

    I think this is Bohjalian's best book yet. I really enjoyed Midwives, Law of Similars and Transister Radio, but I think he has really hit his stride with this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2002

    Excellent Book!!!!

    I absolutely loved this book...I am an avid reader and this book is one of the best I have read so far...The author does an excellent job of describing the characters...I felt like they were living next door to me. I highly recommend this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2002

    I love everything I read by Chris Bohjalian

    Chris Bohjalian is a wonderful writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I read the last 150 pages in one night because I could no longer delay knowing the outcome. In The Buffalo Soldier as well as in Midwives and The Law of Similars, Bohjalian writes about the transgressions of otherwise ordinary and good hearted people. In addition to a great storyline, Bohjalian gave me insight into the unexplored world of midwifery, homeopathic science, and a side of American history not referred to in text books. His books are educating as well as entertaining.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2002

    A GOOD READ

    I enjoyed this book very much. The storyline is plausible and the characters are well-developed. The author is able to write believably from the standpoint of all the main characters. I will recommend this one!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2002

    One of the Best

    This was an absolutely wonderful book that I couldn't put down about a couple who has suffered tremendous loss and brings in a foster child, who changes the lives of his foster family and the town. It would be a great book club selection also.

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    Posted September 26, 2010

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    Posted March 24, 2014

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    Posted January 20, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 26, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2012

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2011

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