Like the Tardis, or Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, The Buffalo Soldier is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. On the outside, it’s just a picture book, written by Sherry Garland and illustrated by Ronald Himler. But when you open the cover and begin to unpack it, you discover that it contains worlds you hadn’t dreamed of.
The Story of The Buffalo Soldier
The narrator of The Buffalo Soldier tells you his life story as it happens. It begins with Emancipation – not in January of 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but “on a hot, dusty day in June, eighteen hundred and sixty five.” Juneteenth. That sets the beginning of the story in Texas.
Emancipation brought with it joy and freedom, but not prosperity. The freedmen are still working other people’s land, putting in the work, but receiving little reward for their labor. The narrator hears that the army wants “young Negro men to serve on the Western frontier.” They’ll pay $13 a month, a princely sum. With that, he thinks he might save up to buy his own land some day. So he walks to New Orleans to sign up.
The Soldier’s Life
The Civil War had exacted a horrible toll, and there weren’t enough white soldiers left to do all the work the U.S. Army needed to do. So, in 1866, Congress authorized recruiting Black people. These all-Black units would serve until segregation in the U.S. military was ended during the Korean War.
But our narrator doesn’t know all that. He knows the sound of the bugle, and drills and work details. He knows danger, from Indian raiding parties and from rattlesnakes, from bitter cold in the winter and heat in the summer. He protects telegraph crews and railroad surveyors and stage coaches.
And he studies. There are classes so that the soldiers can learn to read and write.
He sends money home to his mother, and he saves for that piece of land. And he falls in love, and marries, and has a family.
And still he fights. The Indian Wars end, but then there’s the Spanish-American War. By the time that’s over, the narrator is a first sergeant. And finally he does what he’s been telling his wife he would do for many years; he retires from the service, and buys his land.
As the story ends, he’s an old man, sitting on his front porch, looking out over the land where buffalo once roamed. He’s reading a letter from his grandson, who is also in the Army, serving in one of the all-Black units, complaining about the things soldiers have always complained about.
Garland’s Writing and Himler’s Art
Garland’s decision to put the story in first-person present tense was brilliant. It made the story feel more immediate; intensifying the emotions. But it presented a challenge. The narrator’s voice would have to change as the story progressed. The teenaged slave down in the bottom fields couldn’t talk the same way as the sergeant with more than 30 years in the service. And Garland mastered the challenge. The narrator’s voice changes naturally over time. These changes are part of what makes him feel so real.
Himler’s water color illustrations are simply gorgeous. They completely fill every page, and fill in details about the lives of the Buffalo Soldiers that aren’t included in the words.
Where to Learn More
For those who want to know more about the Buffalo Soldiers, the book includes a rich Author’s Note and a bibliography. And the author’s website includes a Teacher’s Guide with questions to enrich your reading along with online resources.
The Buffalo Soldier is a jewel. I hope you’ll read it. (If you use my affiliate link to get it, you won’t pay more for the book, but I’ll get a small commission that helps support this website.)
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