Buffalo Soldier, by Tanya Landman
What is freedom? What does it mean?
This book is about Charley, a slave girl who grows up in the dying days of the American Civil War and who finds herself suffering the effects of being freed at its close. I say ‘suffering’ because she doesn’t have a lot of options open to her and she ends up enlisting in the US Army disguised as a man. The corps that she joins comprises black soldiers and their job is to enable the white settlers to come and claim lands from the indigenous tribes, escorting them to the reservations and at times even doing battle with them over the rights to the land.
What follows is a story of survival for Charley, and it raises so many moral questions about things like land ownership, freedom, slavery, feminism, racism and so on.
My overall impression?
I didn’t want to read this book because apart from the fact that I have an aversion to ‘set books’, I didn’t want to open myself up to the potential pain of reading about the injustices meted out to so many people. I’m glad I did make the effort to read it because although, yes, it was painful at times, it is such a well written book that you can’t help rooting for Charley as she survives from one crisis and difficult encounter to another.
It was written as a young adult novel and is aimed at teenagers, but I thought that the themes and storylines in the book make it a thoughtful read for adults and mature readers too.
This book earned the Carnegie medal for young adult fiction last year and as far as I am concerned it is a worthy winner. The writing is tight and the sense of place created in the prose is wonderful. I could really put myself there on the plains or in the Army barracks with Charley, and I felt every emotion she went through when it came to making difficult choices with no ‘correct’ answer. For example, she is ordered by her commanding officer to shoot an Indian woman who is in the throes of giving birth. The commanding officer is a bully and cruel, and who happens to be the son of the overseer of the plantation where Charley grew up. He puts her in an impossible situation – what does she do? As a reader I was caught up in her moral dilemma there and in a dozen or so other incidences littered throughout the book.
Who is the main character?
The book focalises on Charley O’Hara, a fictional character which is based on an account the author read of another woman who disguised herself as a man in order to enlist, and although the events are historically accurate they are not all historical truth, if that makes sense.
We also meet Buffalo Bill, him of the Wild West Show, who is impressed by Charley’s shooting skill in a competition in the barracks and who ultimately offers her a solution to a growing problem towards the end of the book.
Other characters fade in and out of the narrative, serving their purpose and then disappearing for one reason or another, but all are connected to Charley in some way or another.
Where is it set?
It is set in post-war America, so the late 1860s/early 1870s and the action takes place all over the place. It begins in the deep south on a plantation and moves East towards the coast and then West again as the Army move around.
Will I read the next in the series?
There isn’t one, but if one is written I would be on it like a shot because it was so good. It was a painful but joyous, difficult but thought provoking read and I would love to read more about our Charley O’Hara please.
My only criticism is that the ending was a bit too ‘convenient’. A chance encounter, then an epilogue that spanned the next 30 years or so was a bit of a disappointment for me in an otherwise outstanding book. The epilogue could have easily been a follow-up book instead of the quick chapter that it was. However, this is only a minor criticism and not one that spoiled it for me at all.
Would I recommend it to my friends?
Yes. This is a book that would appeal to anyone who is interested in history, social injustice, relationships, journeying and so on. It covers a lot of ground, both in the physical sense and the emotional sense and I would recommend it to anyone who loves a good read.