Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan

I believe I first saw Bluffton by Matt Phelan at Shelf Awareness and thought “hmm that looks interesting.”

In the summer of 1908, in Muskegon, Michigan, a visiting troupe of vaudeville performers is about the most exciting thing since baseball. They’re summering in nearby Bluffton, so Henry has a few months to ogle the elephant and the zebra, the tightrope walkers and — lo and behold — a slapstick actor his own age named Buster Keaton. The show folk say Buster is indestructible; his father throws him around as part of the act and the audience roars, while Buster never cracks a smile. Henry longs to learn to take a fall like Buster, “the human mop,” but Buster just wants to play ball with Henry and his friends.

First,  having been born and raised in Michigan I am interested in books set in that fine state (before I was born my family lived in Muskegon). Second, because I wanted to check out how Phelan handled the graphical elements as described by SA:

Through cinematic panels and exquisite timing, Phelan conveys the effortlessness with which Keaton executed his airborne antics and cat-like landings. These wordless sequences also cleverly foreshadow Keaton’s later triumphs in silent film.

I don’t enjoy most graphic novels because I don’t like the way so much detail and dialog is crammed on to each page (I know, get off my law, right?) and this sounded different.

Well, as it turned out I stumbled on the book on a visit the local library and the description was spot on. Phelan really does a great job of balancing the verbal/non-verbal or literary/non-literary elements.  The combination does in fact have a cinematic quality to it. There is a simplicity that belies the action and emotions conveyed by the images.

Muskegon Park

School Library Journal captured the art:

Phelan’s watercolors are expertly rendered and soft in focus, but pop at just the right moments, simultaneously showing the sleepiness of the town, the glamour of show business, and the energy of summer.

It has a wonderful pace and sense of place; and subtle insights into mood and emotions. I like the word Kirkus chose as well: “winsome” (Merriam-Webster: “generally pleasing and engaging often because of a childlike charm and innocence.”

What makes it all the more fun is that it captures both history and biography without seeming like school work or coming off pedantic. Instead it is engaging and creative storytelling through the lens of history. Evocative and yet allowing the reader the space to fill in the story with their own imagination.

Another great book the whole family can enjoy.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.