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.
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. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 31, 2001
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Excerpt from The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian
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.
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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.