Review: Bluffton

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton

by Matt Phelan

Find it at: Your Library | AmazonYour Local Bookstore

Published: Candlewick (July 23, 2013)

Recommended Reading Age: 9 & up

In a Nutshell: While I’ve seen the cover of Matt Phelan’s Bluffton pop up in book reviews while perusing the internet recently, I haven’t actually read any of the reviews (darn work and grad school), so I didn’t have any expectations when I checked it out. I’ve read both The Storm in the Barn and Around the World, so I expected the same caliber work from Bluffton. There is no mistake his previous graphic novels are exceptional, but Bluffton goes above and beyond.

Henry Harrison is a boy from quiet Muskegon, Michigan at the turn of the 20th century. In the year 1908, the quite little city caught wind of entertainment and excitement when a troupe of vaudevilles took residency in the neighboring town of Bluffton. Henry quickly becomes friends with the child actor, Buster Keaton, who is a part of the vaudeville group as a member of a family act that tours nationally. All summer the boys play baseball, Buster employs them to run a few pranks, and Henry pleads for Buster to teach him a stage trick or two which Buster seems to avoid. The summer is like a dream for Henry until the reality of fall rolls in and the performers leave Bluffton. It’s back to school and the same 0ld daily routine. That is, until next summer.

The story is told through the series of summers Henry and Buster spend together with short snippets of  Henry’s life in between those summers. Buster Keaton is known for his slapstick comedy act. His early talent and personality as an entertainer shine through this story, but Bluffton also touches upon a few dark patches of his childhood. In particular, his father’s drinking and his life as a vaudeville act, which was actually quite violent. Everything was not all fun and games for Buster. Henry, who envies Buster’s lifestyle, starts to understand that which each passing summer.

Muskegon, Michigan is fairly close to Ludington, Michigan, my husband’s hometown and where we lived briefly before moving to Lawrence. It was fun to read this story with the familiarity of how breezy and carefree summers are on the shore of Lake Michigan. There is much to admire when reading Bluffton. The beautiful soft watercolor panels, the heartwarming (and heartbreaking) storyline of Buster’s life, and Henry’s own story of how Buster and the visiting vaudevilles impacted his own childhood. This graphic novel will sweep you up in between it’s pages of history and heart.

 Don’t Take My Word for It: “Matt Phelan turns his soft and whimsical style from illustration to graphic novel in Bluffton, giving the final presentation a nostalgic feel that fits Henry’s reminiscences perfectly. And though Henry’s story is fiction, much of Buster’s is true, so readers get a fascinating glimpse into a largely-forgotten era of show business.” – review from The Lemon-Squash Bookclub

Extras: Learn more about Matt Phelan on his website.

Take a minute to read Matt Phelan’s post “Research Gold” for a little background behind writing Bluffton over at the Nerdy Book Club. As well as Matt Phelan’s posts on his personal blog HERE and HERE about “The Road to Bluffton”.

Source of Book Reviewed: My local library!

image source: Bluffton illustrations


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