In THE BUFFALO SOLDIER, the homogeneity of a small Vermont village is disrupted when Laura and Terry Sheldon take in Alfred, a 10-year-old African American foster child. Two years prior to Alfred's arrival, the Sheldons suffered the greatest loss imaginable to parents: their twin daughters Hillary and Megan drowned in a furious flood, the likes of which hadn't been seen in Vermont since 1927. Alfred, a boy who has known too many homes and too little hope, offers a means to either ease their grieving or drive an insurmountable wedge between the Sheldons.
SOLDIER is more than just the Sheldons' story. It is an ensemble cast, a story told in many voices. One set of voices belongs to their neighbors, the Heberts, an elderly retired couple who take a shining to Alfred, teach him how to ride a horse and introduce him to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers --- a war cavalry of extraordinarily brave black soldiers. Alfred blossoms under their tutelage and Laura's attentive care. He begins to feel, for the first time in his life, a true sense of direction, purpose, and belonging. Facing their own mortality, the Heberts --- Paul in particular --- find rejuvenation in their encounters with Alfred.
Another character reminds us that parents experiencing the loss of a child often don't recover. Phoebe is the single woman Terry Sheldon turns to in his grief. Both grapple with the morality of their affair, while developing strength in each other's company. Phoebe, too, seeks a home, a place --- and she finds it, if only briefly, with Terry.
Like MIDWIVES, TRANS-SISTER RADIO, and THE LAW OF SIMILARS before it, SOLDIER gives us everyday folks --- our neighbors, our friends, our families --- under extreme pressures, living their lives in a part of the world that has become trademark Bohjalian. The stories of the six main characters unfold subtly and with great grace in the writing. The voices are distinct and given equal time. Clearly the author felt each has something of importance to say.
Bohjalian has tackled a number of varied topics and issues in the past, from homeopathic medicine to midwifery to sexual orientation. A reader could mistake SOLDIER for a novel "about" the trials and tribulations of foster care, but that would be a mistake. A more universal theme is at play here: family life. Whether it's the traditional mom and pop with 2.5 kids, or the grandparents in their 60s saddled with raising their own grandchildren, or two gay men who have adopted three HIV positive orphans, each encounters the same family issues and dynamics. And this, it seems, is what Bohjalian wants us to glean from the experiences and interactions of the communal family he has created in Cornish, Vermont. No matter what the structure, the family unit deals with pain, heartache, choices, responsibility, hopes, and love. And Bohjalian's SOLDIER family does so with ultimate dignity.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on February 25, 2003
The Buffalo Soldier