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Author: Matt Phelan
May Contain Spoilers
Matt Phelan, graphic novelist extraordinaire, presents a rollicking tribute to vaudeville, small-town dreams, and Buster Keaton as a boy.
In the summer of 1908, in Muskegon, Michigan, a visiting troupe of vaudeville performers is about the most exciting thing since baseball. They’re summering in nearby Bluffton, so Henry has a few months to ogle the elephant and the zebra, the tightrope walkers and — lo and behold — a slapstick actor his own age named Buster Keaton. The show folk say Buster is indestructible; his father throws him around as part of the act and the audience roars, while Buster never cracks a smile. Henry longs to learn to take a fall like Buster, "the human mop," but Buster just wants to play ball with Henry and his friends. With signature nostalgia, Scott O’Dell Award–winning graphic novelist Matt Phelan visualizes a bygone era with lustrous color, dynamic lines, and flawless dramatic pacing.
I don’t think that I’ve read anything by Matt Phelan before I picked up Bluffton, but now that I’m aware of him, I’ll be trolling his backlist. I wanted to read this book because I saw that it took place in Muskegon, Michigan in the early 1900s. That’s the only reason. I didn’t realize until I started reading it that it’s about Buster Keaton’s childhood. Doh! While I have heard of Buster Keaton, I didn’t really know anything about him, so this book was informative as well as a visual treat.
Bluffton is the story of Henry Harrison and his magical summers in Bluffton. Once the vaudeville performers, led by Joe Keaton, begin vacationing in the sleepy town near his home in Muskegon, Henry’s life will never be the same. He quickly makes friends with Buster, but along with their friendship is envy and a longing for a more exciting life. Henry is envious of Buster’s talent and the constant attention sent his way. Buster, on the other hand, longs for a more normal childhood. He wants to play baseball, and if asked, which he never is, he’d prefer to be a civil engineer than a vaudeville star. When pretty Sally shows an interest in Buster, the boys friendship is put to the test.
This was a perfect summer weekend read. It’s an engaging coming of age story, and it manages to sneak in some history, seamlessly and compellingly, at the same time. Henry has to come to terms with his normal, though happily ordinary, life, while watching Buster’s star blaze brighter and brighter. The only thing that keeps Buster from being unlikable is that he, unlike Henry, has no real choice for his future. His father has honed his stage presence since he was a young boy, and nothing is going to change the course of his life. Not the authorities seeking to take Buster away from his parents under the suspicion of abuse, and certainly not Buster himself, who longs to have a say in who he is and what he does.
Bluffton is a heartwarming, slice of life story, about two boys and their unlikely friendship. It’s a gentle story of summers gone by, and wistful dreams for the future. While Henry woefully lacked any talent for entertaining, he made his dreams come true in his own way.
Review copy provided by publisher