Bluffton is historical fiction in a graphic novel. Henry Harrison lives in Muskegon, Michigan in the early 1900’s. His parents own the local hardware store and Henry often works there as well. Henry thinks life in his town is “quiet and ordinary” until the summer of 1908.
In 1908 touring entertainers from the vaudeville circuit arrive to summer in Bluffton, a small town next to Muskegon. Henry’s excitement begins when he sees elephants and zebras disembarking from the train. It continues when he meets a young Buster Keaton, who is part of the group summering in Bluffton along with his parents. The Three Keatons are at the pinnacle of their vaudeville fame.
Buster’s love of playing baseball and practical jokes as well as his father, Joe Keaton’s, larger-than-life presence in the summer Artists’ Colony bring a new buoyancy to Muskegon. Phelan’s watercolor artwork enhances the nostalgic quality of the story. There is also quite a bit of biographical information about Buster Keaton’s youth before his extraordinary silent film career.
I did extensive research on silent films and the actors in them for a show I directed two years ago. I was impressed with the accuracy of the details surrounding both Buster and his parents–particularly the little-known story of how Harry Houdini, the famous magician, was the one to give Buster his nickname and the fact that the Gerry Society (today’s Child Protective Services) pursued Joe Keaton, feeling his treatment of Buster during their comedy act was too violent.
Henry struggles with his desire to have what Buster has–what he sees as a life free of responsibility (and full of excitement and fun). Over the course of the story Henry must look at some of his feelings and actions which are not particularly admirable. He finds his way through life to the balance of responsibility and fun that becomes his contented, joyful future.
This is not a book young readers will search out themselves, but with the guidance of a knowledgeable older reader who can fill in historical details and their significance in today’s world–and a young reader’s individual life–as they read, Bluffton can open the door to a whole new reading experience.