Review: Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman
By Elizabeth Malcolm
Buffalo Soldier is about a young black American slave girl who finds herself suddenly free when the Civil War sees the official end of slavery. However her sense of freedom is short lived when she realises that although the law has changed, society’s attitudes towards black people have not changed – in fact they have hardened.
After Charlotte watches the violent death of her black adoptive mother at the hands of a white mob, led by the son of the man who owned her, she has to find a way to survive. She cannot get a job and her life is in grave danger, not only because of the colour of her skin but also because she is a woman. In desperation she steals the uniform and belongings of a dead man and then, disguised as a man joins the American army. For the rest of the story she is known as ‘Charley’.
Very few young adult novels have been written in the UK on American history which is one factor that perhaps makes this book a valuable contribution to young adult historical fiction. It’s been very carefully researched – in the video on the CILIP website Tanya Landman describes how she read volumes of slave testimonials from Georgia and researched in detail the weaponry used in the Indian wars. As far as the historical context goes she writes convincingly as a result of this research. I found myself wondering as I read it just how likely it was that a woman could get away with disguising herself as a man for so long in the army so I was surprised to find that Tanya Landman has actually based the story on a black woman, Cathay Williams, who really did disguise herself as a man in order to survive the aftermath of the Civil War and who managed to keep up her disguise for two years before she became injured and was discovered.
As a work of historical fiction there are a number of very interesting themes that are relevant to American society today that run throughout the book.
A principle theme is freedom. The tension between three groups of people – the freed slaves, the Native Americans and the white settlers – is played out. The emancipation of slaves supposedly gives Charlotte her freedom, but in reality she is not free to even walk down the street. Her supposedly new found freedom actually finds her hiding in a hole, forced to steal a dead man’s clothes and to give up her true identity as a woman. Having been declared free herself, she is ordered by the American Government to strip another group, the Native Americans, of their freedom. For the Native Americans, freedom meant having the right to roam their land without putting down roots. The white pioneers saw freedom as having the right to own land and settle down. When Charlie eventually falls in love this also is taken away from her as Jim loses his freedom and is sent to prison. As controversial social situations, such as the police shootings of black Americans, has put America in the news recently, so the irony that America is often referred to as “The Land of the Free” is powerfully played out in this book.
Closely linked to the theme of freedom is the theme of equality. Charlotte not only has no chance of gaining a job, money or respect because she is black, but because, worse than that, she is a woman. Freedom and equality are perceived to be social issues in today’s American society. For example, Time Magazine reported on John Legend who gave a political speech in February when receiving an Oscar for Selma. He said, “We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today then there were under slavery in 1850.” The book gives a convincing historical context to such tensions.
Charlie’s character develops in an interesting way throughout the book but in many ways it felt quite difficult to be convinced by her. Her upbringing as a slave initially places her as a powerless character who simply accepts orders. Yet it is her ability to accept orders, along with her resilience and grit, that makes her an exceptional soldier and gives her the patience to eventually overcome her circumstances. She shows almost super human resilience and strength of mind. A curious mixture of naivety and wisdom is what perhaps saves her. In particular it verges on miraculous that she seems to emerge emotionally unscathed from the events in her life, waiting patiently for seventeen years for Jim’s release. It seemed that the book did not give enough explanation for Charley’s quiet acceptance with which the story ends. She claims that they ‘keep on fighting’ but there is not much indication of how she does. However, perhaps Charley’s equanimity at the end of the story simply serves to highlight the harrowing treatment of freed slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War. That is seems virtually impossible for any human being to emerge with the quiet acceptance of such unjust treatment as Charley does, serves to point to why such resentment was created by this period of history and why a legacy of resentment still exists today.
This book looks at American history from a fascinating and unusual viewpoint, and in doing so addresses social issues of equality such as race and gender facing America today. Despite my reservations about how convincing Charley’s character is, it nevertheless very successfully brings to life a period and viewpoint of American history that has rarely been covered in young adult historical fiction.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.