Bluffton: My Summers with Buster is the newest graphic novel from Matt Phelan. This is Phelan's third graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn and Around the World, being the first two. All three of these books are set in the past, featuring historical events and figures who left their mark on the world, if not changed it outright. With Bluffton, Phelan tells a more personal story as he did in The Storm in the Barn, with a fictional protagonist watching history unfold around him. It's the summer of 1908 in Muskegon, Michigan, the summer they arrived.
The text, and even the plot itself, in Bluffton is sparse, Phelan's illustrations doing the work of telling the story, setting the scene and evoking a feeling. Henry, the son of a hardware store owner, watches as the vaudevillians arrive to spend the summer in Bluffton, a nearby town on the edge of the lake. Henry wants to follow the laughing, colorful people, the elephant and the boy who does backflips, but the trolley is full. Eventually, Henry makes his way out to Bluffton where he makes fast friends with Buster. Henry soon learns who Buster is and what his family does for a living and he want to know more, maybe even learn a bit from Buster. But Buster is reluctant, telling Henry that it's very easy to get hurt.
Henry is angered by this and his jealousy almost alienates Buster, but Buster's joy at having a summer free from work and free to play is hard to ignore. The boys play baseball, pull pranks and skip rocks across the lake, scenes and stories from Buster's life are interspersed with these moments. The vaudevillians leave the Actor's Colony at the end of summer, but the impression Buster leaves on Henry is long lasting.
Henry decides to develop an act for the town talent show that leads to some subtle but profound realizations about time, place and innate personalities. Phelan's touch is gentle, both with his story and his gorgeous watercolor illustrations. He gives the readers just enough information about Buster Keaton to pique their interests with an Author's Note that points readers toward resources to explore for further examples of Keaton's genius. As he did with Around the World, Phelan masterfully presents young readers with a lyrical vision of a talented person who accomplished something great, inspiring them to learn more about the subject. I know I'm going to queue up some Buster Keaton movies to watch after reading Bluffton: My Summers with Buster.
Source: Review Copy