Excerpted from The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian. Copyright © 2002 by Chris Bohjalian. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Why did you write this book? What inspired it?
A: The Buffalo Soldier actually had two points of origin. First of all, my small Vermont village was devastated by a river flood on June 28, 1998. After four weeks of rain and four inches in an hour, the usually lazy, meandering New Haven River overflowed its banks and carved 40-foot chasms in the adjacent paved roads, demolished two steel cement bridges that had stood for decades, and destroyed our local library when five feet of water submerged 80 percent of the collection. The property damage was immense: The National Guard spent days in the town, and FEMA spend weeks. And yet because the river crested at 1:15 a.m. and 4:15 a.m., not a single human being was hurt. The only casualty was a cow.
And so I began to wonder what would have happened if the flood had occurred at midday. What would have happened to the cars on the road, to the children who might have been watching the water from the banks of the river or, worse, from either of those bridges? How would the community have coped then?
The second point of origin occurred a few months after the flood, when my kindergarten daughter returned home with her class picture. There in the image were sixteen white children—sweet and adorable, yes, but white. Her entire class, I realized, was white. Now I love Vermont but the state’s racial homogeneity—especially outside Burlington—is certainly not among its virtues. And so once again I wondered what if, and I tried to use this demographic reality to further explore the ties that bind families. Before I knew it, the book had a little boy in it, an African-American foster child brought from Burlington to a rural village far from the state’s largest city.
Q: Were you nervous writing in the voice of an African-American boy?
A: Good lord, no. I wrote about the sorts of universals any ten-year-old boy may experience: the desire to belong coupled with the sense that you’re an outsider; the Byzantine dynamics of your parents’ relationship; how completely inexplicable all grown-up behavior seems to you when you’re in the fifth grade. My family moved a fair amount when I was a child—I went to seven schools between kindergarten and twelfth grade—and so, more times than not, I merely pulled on my own memories from when I was a boy. In this regard, The Buffalo Soldier has considerably more autobiographic minutiae than any other novel I’ve written, and there’s probably more of me in Alfred than in any character I’ve created.
Q: You’ve written about midwifery and homeopathy and transsexuals. Is this a novel “about” foster care?
A: I hope not. As a matter of fact, one of the things that drew me to the subject matter is that it wasn’t about any particular hot-button issue. Nevertheless, in my books I do tend to explore the way the cultural margins press against the mainstream: The environment vs. development, alternative vs. traditional medicine, the place of birth (literally and metaphorically) in this country, and all that baggage we bring to gender and sexual orientation. And so while I want The Buffalo Soldier to be viewed primarily as a novel about parents and children and marriage—family, in essence—I know also that some people will be drawn to the issues it raises about foster care.
Q: Is foster care an issue in Vermont?
A: I don’t believe it’s any more of an issue in Vermont than it is anyplace else. Unfortunately, all we tend to see in the newspapers are the teen girls from the foster care program who wind up as prostitutes in New York City, or the teen boys who commit violent crimes. These kids represent a tiny fraction of the children being supervised by the foster care system. I met social workers and administrators and, of course, foster parents while researching The Buffalo Soldier, and invariably I was impressed by their dedication as well as their competence. The reality is that no one gets involved in foster care administration or management who doesn’t love children and want to make their lives better. Nevertheless, the system is under enormous stress right now: Each case worker has roughly twenty-seven kids to manage, and thirty-nine percent of the children have had to endure five or more placements. The State is doing what it can to manage the pressure posed by the numbers of children now needing foster care in Vermont, but it remains a profoundly difficult task.
Q: All of your previous books were written in the first person. Why did you choose to write THE BUFFALO SOLDIER in the third person?
A: I wanted Midwives and The Law of Similars and Trans-Sister Radio to feel like autobiographies, and to have the emotional resonance of memoir—hence the first person. I wanted The Buffalo Soldier to feel much more like a traditional novel because it’s such an ensemble story. There are six major characters in the book I cared deeply about, and I didn’t want their voices jockeying for position in some unruly cacophonic mess. Moreover, by writing in the third person I could allow the story to unfold more naturally, because it wouldn’t be encumbered by the sorts of linguistic idiosyncrasies that a first-person novel demands.
Q: How do you feel about the movies that have been made or optioned based on your books?
A: I love movies, and I love the two films that have been made from my novels. (Midwives and Past the Bleachers). Trans-Sister Radio and The Buffalo Soldier are both currently in development. (The Buffalo Soldier, in fact, is with the same team that made Midwives), and I have complete faith in the filmmakers. I have no interest in writing the screenplays for any movies that are made from my books, but I am always careful to sell the material to people who seem to understand the novel and have faith in the story as I told it. That doesn’t mean that someday a studio or production company won’t take one of my stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and add a collision or two between the earth and an asteroid. . . but it hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.
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?