Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Buffalo Soldier

As I was reading my way through UKLA's longlist for 2015, I came across Tanya Landman's Buffalo Soldier.  I had two overriding thoughts about this particular book:  (1) that it was a beautifully written story of a fascinating historical subject, and (2) who will read it?  In commercial terms, it seems like a totally unfashionable book -- which will only get into adolescent hands, if at all, through the encouragement of a persuasive teacher or librarian.  I found it compelling and memorable, certainly, but can we trust in books to find their own readers?

Author Tanya Landman is British, but she has written two YA historical novels (Apache and Buffalo Soldier) that are peculiarly American in their setting and subject matter.  Set in the American West during the 19th century, they describe a time of huge turmoil.  The Civil War has (technically, at least) set African-American slaves free at the same time as the policy of Westward Expansion threatens to take away the freedom of Native Americans.  In an era where women have little autonomy and no legal rights, Landman puts a female protagonist at the center of all this cultural upheaval.  Like all best histories, the narrative simultaneously educates its readers about a specific historical moment whilst illuminating emotions and ethical conflicts which seem eternally relevant.     But here is the rub:  like Selma or 12 Years A Slave, this novel deals with some uncomfortably dark history all too vividly described.

The story begins on a Southern plantation at the tail-end of an era.  The narrator of the story is a young female slave, named Charlotte by her absent mother and called "girl" or "child" by everyone else.  In a few efficient chapters, the author gives a colorful sense of Charlotte's circumscribed life:   her place in Cookie's kitchen, her concerns and fears.  When General Sherman and his soldiers raze the plantation, those slaves who haven't run away are suddenly left homeless and quite helpless.  Rather than enjoying the glorious freedom they have been promised, they are struggling just to stay alive in the burnt-out South.  After Charlotte loses her protectors, the prospect of being alone and female is unbearable.  In a bold and desperate gambit, she disguises herself as a young man and joins the Army.  After a period of training, Charlotte (now Charley) is transported West to fight the "Indian Wars".  She has become a Buffalo Soldier.

As is so often the case with what seems improbable, there was real-life precendence for this fictional story.  Cathay Williams was a former female slave who managed to join the 38th Infantry Regiment and serve as a Buffalo Soldier for two years before her true identity was discovered.  Landman takes some dramatic liberties only in the sense that her heroine is transformed into a soldier (and sharpshooter) far superior to Cathay Williams.  Charley finds herself in the thick of it:  from dramatic skirmishes with fierce Apache tribes to the equally intense battle for respect within a mostly racist Army.  (There are a few significant exceptions.)

This book is also very much about the growth of a political consciousness.  At the beginning of her story, Charley's only motivation is her instinct for survival.  As a former slave, she has been used to taking orders and certainly accustomed to privations and abuse.  This "training" serves her well in the Army.  But gradually, as they witness a trail of broken promises, Charley and some of her fellow soldiers begin to question the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.  In one of the novel's most dramatic moments, and there are many, Charley will be forced to choose sides -- and the tough decision will be all her own.

There is a dedicated Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, Texas, and I wanted to visit it before writing my review of this book.  But despite the interest of seeing actual artifacts (mostly farming, household and weaponry), in terms of a narrative, I really learned nothing that I had not already learned from my reading.  Whether it was the inferiority of the weapons and animals given to the Buffalo Soldiers, or the derivation of their name, author Tanya Landman had already covered it.  Rather than being a criticism of the museum, I would prefer to emphasize this as a tribute to the book.

I had intended to write about Buffalo Soldier in February, in honor of Black History Month, but really the story of the fight for equality is relevant during any month.  As John Legend and Common referenced in their acceptance speech for "Glory" at the recent Academy Awards, there continues to be great inequalities in the United States in terms of poverty, educational opportunities, incarceration and victimization by the police force.  Interestingly, the founder of the Buffalo Soldier Museum mentioned that when he had taken a group of African -American teenage boys to visit Fort Davis, where many Buffalo Soldiers were stationed, it was the first time that many of them had been out of their own "zip code" in Houston.  In other words, not only had these boys never been outside of Houston, they had never seen anything of the world beyond their own limited neighborhood.  It's difficult to imagine, really, but it certainly stuck in my mind.  It also made me think of Charley, who  had never been off the plantation until the Civil War ended in 1865.

We don't all have the same opportunities for travel, which is exactly why books -- with all of their world-expanding potential -- are such a vital resource.  I do hope that this excellent book will find readers for its journey.

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@Barrie Summy


  1. Welcome back!

    Certainly sounds like a good book to me, but I don't know if I would have picked it up at 14. I preferred vampires at that age. Do you think this could have done well if marketed towards adults?

  2. That is an interesting question, Stacy. Certainly it is aimed at the upper end of the YA range, both because of the age of the protagonist and the content. The thing is: whether adult or teenage, many of us want comfort or pure entertainment when we read. Reading about difficult and painful history can be a heck of a hard sell.

  3. The story is all the more compelling for being based on a real character. I think a book like this could do well enough as a classroom supplement. Elizabeth Wein has written war books with teenaged girl protagonists that have sold well to a general audience, including one set in a female concentration camp. I'm pleased to see books like this one published and reviewed. It's nice to have you back!

  4. This sounds like a really compelling read. Great review!

  5. An excellent review! This may be directed at a young adult audience, but it certainly sounds like something I would enjoy. I agree with Sarah that being based on an a real character makes it even more interesting. It reminds me of "The Invention of Wings," by Sue Monk Kidd which was loosely based on actual early female abolitionists. After reading that book I wanted to know more about the two women. I don't know anything about the buffalo soldiers, so I'm intrigued.

  6. For kids a great story is often the best way teaching history. I wish more books like this had been available when I taught 7th grade American History....

  7. This sounds fabulous and something I would like to read. I searched on Amazon and it's really hard to find. It sounds like it was published in the UK but not here in America, unless there's a library edition that didn't show up. That alone will keep the book from being widely read, I fear. It sounds very worthwhile and would be a good choice for class assignments. Great review. And yes, a history geek like me would have read it as a teen.

  8. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments. Yes, I hope that this book is discovered by history teachers! It brings history so vividly to life and has an interesting perspective on racial and gender issues. I read so many YA books, but this one has really stuck with me. Linda, I didn't realize that I wasn't available in the US yet!? Hopefully it will get picked up a US publisher, especially since the setting is in the US. As mentioned in my review, it is way more relevant to Americans.