Synopses & Reviews
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 cant 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; Terrys 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 Bohjalians moral complexity and narrative assurance.
About the Author
Chris Bohjalian is the author of eight novels, including Midwives
, (a # 1 New York Times
bestseller and an Oprahs Book Club® selection), Trans-Sister Radio
, and The Buffalo Soldier
—as well as Idyll Banter
, a collection of magazine essays and newspaper columns.
His work has been translated into seventeen languages, been published in twenty countries, and twice become acclaimed movies, (“Midwives” and “Past the Bleachers”). In 2002 and he won the New England Book Award.
Reading Group Guide
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 Alfreds 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 shed never get betterand what was more important for everyone around her, it was clear that she didnt 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 Terrys doubts about taking Alfred in differ from Lauras? 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 Alfreds 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 Lauras lack of interest in sex, as well as her emotional withdrawal, explain Terrys attraction to Phoebe? Do you think that he is justified in feeling that Alfreds presence has made him “irrelevant” to Lauras 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 Terryand with herselfabout what she wants and expects from their relationship?
7. Paul Herberts empathy and generosity make a tremendous difference in Alfreds life. Why is he able to break through Alfreds 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 Pauls 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 Alfreds 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?