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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bluffton, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2013. $ 26.00 ages 8 and up

"Life in Muskegon, Michigan,
was quiet.
But that all changed in the
summer of 1908.
The summer they arrived.
The vaudevillians.
Show people.
Here to spend the summer
by our lake.

Henry is fascinated, to say the least! When the vaudeville troupe arrives by rail, Henry is happily munching an apple. He drops that apple in surprise, when he sees an elephant embark from the rail car. And, he takes special note of a young boy who bounds from the train, full of energy and adept at back flips. When the company boards the 'trolley line to Bluffton', there is no room for Henry and he waits for the next ride.  

As he waits, he wanders and he yearns to share what he has just seen with his friend:

"Hey, Sally. Bet you can't guess what I just saw -"
"An elephant."
"That's right."
"Mother said the vaudeville performers were arriving today. Said they had an elephant and a zebra."
"That so?"
"They're renting cottages in Bluffton this summer. On vacation."
"All summer?"
"That's what Mother says."

Henry has been to Lake Michigan Park, but never to Bluffton. He is intrigued enough to wander past.
There, he meets Buster, Jingles and Louise...and gets himself invited to play baseball the next day. As he wanders back, he meets Ed Gray who is full of chat and information about the Actor's Colony:

"Vaudeville is variety.

A veritable cavalcade of comedians, jugglers, dancers, magicians, acrobats, musicians, and dramatic actors...all for short, precise acts of the highest entertainment value!

A day in the theater promises twelve to fifteen acts to amuse, inspire, electrify, edify, and enlighten (for one small price)."

Once Henry and Buster have become friends, Henry wants Buster to teach his some tricks of the trade. Buster has no interest in teaching. He wants to play ball, and swim, and fish. They become happy summer friends and share adventure and stories. As each summer rolls around, Henry is eager to see Buster once more.

Matt Phelan creates strong characters and an authentic sense of place for his newest graphic novel. He is a huge fan of Buster Keaton, and has been since he saw his first Buster Keaton movie. In this wonderful recreation of summers spent in Bluffton he allows his readers a glimpse at the boy who would become a world-wide celebrity only a few short years later. His historically detailed watercolor sketches offer a clear picture of life in a different time.

While this book is a lot about Buster, it is also about Henry who grows and changes as he lives his ordinary life away from the limelight, in the shelter of small town Michigan at the turn of the century. He learns a lot about vaudeville, about Buster; he also learns a great deal about himself. While Buster wants Henry's quiet, ordinary life, Henry dreams of performing and living as Buster lives when he is not in Bluffton.

After a lot of dreaming and summers spent in Bluffton, Henry finally works up the courage to tell his father that he doesn't think he wants to take over the family business. His father is very understanding of that view and offers some sage advice:

"You have a choice, too. You'll have lots of choices to make, Henry.
Don't worry so much about what you are going to do, Henry.
Concentrate on who you are going to be."

WONDERFUL! It is, and always shall be, on my 'keeper' shelf! Thank you, Matt Phelan.

If you want to learn more about vaudeville, Buster Keaton and the author himself, be sure to visit his

Check out this to see Buster in action:

And, don't miss this one:

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