As Bluffton unfolds, Henry Harrison is facing the prospect of a boring summer in sleepy, ordinary Muskegon, Michigan. When a troupe of vaudeville performers arrives, he’s enthralled, especially when one of the actors, a kid his own age named Buster Keaton, turns out to be as much of a baseball nut as he is—maybe even more so.
The year is 1908 and 13-year-old Buster, known as “the human mop” for his ability to take a fall, is already an old hand at performing. Buster is more interested in having a lazy, normal summer filled with baseball, away from the pressures of the stage. And, since baseball is what the boys have in common, everyone gets along. “Baseball does that,” comments Henry. But underneath summer pastimes, the two boys face larger issues of what their futures will hold. Summers, and the innocence of childhood, don’t last forever.
Matt Phelan, who won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction for his first graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn, effectively evokes the transient magic of summer in this poignant, beautifully illustrated story of two boys from very different worlds.
Inspired by the Actors’ Colony at Bluffton, which was founded by Buster’s father, Joe Keaton, and existed from 1908-1938, Bluffton introduces young readers to one of the icons in film history. Phelan is clearly a fan, and his enthusiasm and respect for Buster Keaton are evident throughout. Recommending Keaton films to young readers, Phelan says in his author’s note that Buster Keaton was “a true genius,” whose “hilarious, breathtaking, innovative” films will change the way viewers think about the age of silent movies. (Phelan is not alone: In 2007, The General was named by the American Film Institute as number 18 on a list of the top 100 American films ever made.)
By showing us Buster Keaton as a boy trying to balance a public self with private dreams, Phelan’s book is a wonderful gift for readers of all ages.