Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bluffton: My Summer with Buster by Matt Phelan

It's 1908, and not much happens in Muskegon, Michigan.  But all that changes when a troupe of vaudeville performers come to summer not far from Muskegon.  Henry can't believe his eyes.  The elephants, zebras, and the kids who travel with their families!  What a life!  Henry befriends Buster, a kid his age who is part of his family's act.  Henry wants Buster to teach him all his tricks, but all Buster wants is to play baseball and pull some pranks.

Henry is a fictional character, but all the vaudeville people mentioned in the book are real, and they really did summer at Bluffton where Joe Keaton, Buster's father, founded The Actor's Colony.  Buster, of course, is Buster Keaton, famous comedian and film star.  Before he became that famous film star, we learn, he was part of a family act where he was "the human mop."  He got throw around, took lots of falls, and got right back up again.

Henry is jealous of Buster.  Henry thinks his life is boring.  Here he is in this nothing little town, where nothing every happens.  His father owns a store.  He helps his father in his store.  He goes to school.  That's his life.  But Buster!  Buster gets to travel the world!  He can do all sorts of tricks and falls.  He can juggle.  He meets all kind of interesting people.  He's personable and friendly.  Henry wants to be like him.

Buster, we the reader can see, does not think he's quite so lucky.  He wants to spend his summer, the only time he doesn't have to perform, playing baseball.  He doesn't want to teach Henry falls and tricks.  He doesn't want to do them when he doesn't have to.  We can tell Buster wishes he'd had more schooling.  Perhaps more of a "regular" life.  That maybe he doesn't want to be in vaudeville forever, but Henry can't see that.

There's a lovely moment in the book where Henry talks to his father about not wanting to be a store keeper.  His father tells him he never expected him to be.  He wants Henry to do whatever will make him happy.

The art is done in lovely pale water color.  It invokes a feeling of "another time."  There are many wordless panels where everything we need is in a look or gesture.  A beautiful book.  Might take some pushing to get kids to read it.  It might not be one they'll just pick up.  Sell it by talking about the elaborate pranks Henry and Buster pull on the school principal.

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