The Buffalo Solider by Chris Bohjalian

126816Fiction — print. Vintage, 2003. Originally published 2002.432 pgs. Purchased.

Bohjalian’s 2002 novel is the third of his I’ve read and the only one not available through the library. Luckily, I was able to find a copy of this particular novel at a local charity shop and decided to make it the first book I read during spring break.

It’s the story of a couple living in northern Vermont trying to deal with the death of their nine-year-old twin daughters. Laura Sheldon seizes upon the idea of taking in a foster child to fill the emptiness in their house since she and Terry are unable to have more children. Terry struggles to accept Alfred in his home because of his grief. Or maybe his hesitance is because Alfred is a ten-year-old African-American boy who has been shuttled for years between foster families and group homes.

While the rest of this northern Vermont community reflects Terry’s problems with Alfred, the older couple living across the street from the Sheldons take Alfred under their wing providing a platform for both the Sheldons and the readers to get to know this little boy better.

One night, in the forests of Vermont, Terry cheats on his wife with a younger woman named Phoebe. Their brief encounter leaves Phoebe pregnant and Terry struggles to decide between the “real” child and therefore the “real” family he could have with Phoebe or the life he has with a “fragile” Laura and a child that is not biologically his.

About this time last year I tried reading a memoir written by a white woman about her experience adopting African-American children. I just could not get into that particular memoir, but I was intrigued with Bohjalian’s fictional scenario addressing this particular topic. Race is such a difficult issue in the United States and I always find it interesting that people assume rural, southern areas are less tolerant than urban, northern areas. Bohjalian’s decision to set his story in a rural, northern town was an interesting choice.

Bohjalian continues to refuse to use quotation marks; something I forgot about his style of writing. Takes a little while to get use to but after the first twenty-five pages or so it did not bother me nearly as much as it had when I read one of his books for the first time.

The decision to name the book after the Buffalo Soldiers — African-American cavalry troopers — seems like an odd choice. It’s Ruth and Paul Hebert, the elderly couple across the street, who introduce Alfred to the history of the buffalo soldiers. The back of the book states the buffalo soldiers’ reputation for integrity, honor, and personal responsibility inspires Alfred but I really did not see that connection especially as the book centers upon the struggles Terry faces.

(Spoiler warning!)

And this is ultimately why I did not like the book. Terry is one of the most selfish people I’ve encountered in a book and his decision at the end of the novel really ruined the novel as a whole for me. Terry cheats on his wife, fathers a child with this other woman, and then decides in the end not to tell his wife because she’s too “fragile”. And in his decision to stay with Laura and keep her in the dark, he also walks away from his other child. Am I happy that Alfred finally gets to have a family? Yes, but he also gets a deadbeat dad for a father who almost walked away from him and permanently walked away from another child who also deserves a father.

Put simply, this particular novel is not as good as some of his other books that I have read. The original premises – addition of a foster child to a family, dealing with race in adoption – were not why I picked up this book in the first place but certainly could have made for a great book.  Unfortunately, these premises get muddled in dominance of Terry’s troubles.


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