Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Beverly Slapin's review of Joseph Bruchac's BUFFALO SONG

[Note: This review may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin.]
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Bruchac, Joseph, Buffalo Song, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. Lee & Low, 2008, preschool-up

For millennia, the great buffalo herds provided material and spiritual sustenance for the Salish and other Indian peoples who inhabited much of North America. This sacred relationship was disrupted time and again, as the Salish were pushed west out of their hunting territories by the better-armed Plains nations, who themselves were pushed out by the eastern tribes, retreating from the expanding United States. As the government’s oppressive policies and overhunting by the encroaching whites combined with a series of epidemics and failing military and political alliances, the effects on the Salish and their beloved buffalo were particularly devastating.

By the 1870s, when Buffalo Song begins, the buffalo are once again scarce and in danger of disappearing. A young Nez Percé boy and his father rescue a buffalo calf whose entire herd has been slaughtered. They bring the little orphan to a Pend d’Oreille man named Sam Walking Coyote, who, with his family, are raising several other buffalo calves. Drawing in good part on oral interviews with Salish elders in the 1920s and ‘30s by the Montana Writers Project, Bruchac weaves together the stories of the boy and his father, the calf and his adopted family, and Walking Coyote and his family’s compassion and dedication that led to the establishment of the Pablo-Allard herd and the eventual restoration of the buffalo. In doing so, he fashions the events of a complex story into a satisfying and accessible picture book that will resonate on many levels with young children.

The preface to Buffalo Song is Bruchac’s recounting of a Salish story told in 1926 about the return of the buffalo. Weaving in and out of historical and mythological time, both the original tale and Bruchac’s reframing of it as a creation story mirror the great struggles for herd restoration from the nineteenth century up to and including the present. Together the two versions become, in fact, a re-creation story about the revitalization of the great herds and an honor song for what the Salish have done.

But few books are perfect. Unfortunately, Farnsworth’s oil-on-canvas paintings, on a palette of mostly greens and earth tones, do not match the literary level of Bruchac’s story. Except in several places, Farnsworth’s buffalo and horses exhibit a far greater range of color, motion and expression than do his Indians. Nevertheless, for all it is and all it says, Buffalo Song is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
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Buffalo Song is available from Oyate.

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