In 1908, in the quiet community of Muskegon, Michigan, a locomotive chugged into town, and my oh my, you will never guess who was on board.
A high wire walker.
And a scrappy little comedian named Buster Keaton.
Buster was just a child then, part of a large company of vaudeville entertainers who spent their summers at Bluffton, the Actors’ Colony along the shores of Lake Muskegon. Already Buster was astonishing his audiences by his wild tumbling, flipping, and falling. Summers in Bluffton were a welcome relief for him from all the weary travels and work on stage. Here, his days could leisurely drift by with baseball, swimming, fishing, and daydreaming — a dose of normalcy in his far-from-ordinary childhood.
This much is true.
In Matt Phelan’s fantastic story, Buster meets two fictional Muskegon kids –Henry and Sally — whose friendship with Buster grows summer after summer. As the boys play ball together, invent ridiculous hijinks, and play outrageous practical jokes, we hear Buster tell about the dangerous, nomadic, controversial, rambunctious life he leads. To Henry, it all sounds quite exciting. Buster’s interactions with Sally, however, give us more subtle insights into some of the burdens of Buster’s life, including his lack of schooling.
Phelan’s watercolor illustrations contain masterfully nuanced glimpses into these three characters’ complex feelings, desires, and motivations. From collapsing outhouses to shy glances, jealous longings to growing pains, angry outbursts to genial camaraderie, three individuals come alive in Phelan’s gorgeous panels. The light washes used throughout the book convey a peaceful, turn-of-the-century feel to this quiet corner of America, as does the dappled sunlight, the languid lake waters, the unornamented interiors and snowy, gray, winter days waiting for summer and Buster to arrive again. Yet the firebrand antics of Keaton will astonish you and tickle your funny bone as well.
Meet Harry Houdini, smile at a blush of romance, learn about the days of vaudeville and become acquainted with what Buster Keaton would call “the happiest days of his life,” in this excellent graphic novel. An Author’s Note adds a bit more information on the course of Keaton’s life after his Bluffton days.
Brand new as of this summer, I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it for ages 9 and up. If you haven’t tried a graphic novel before, let this be your first, and then check out some of Matt’s other works. Great way to entice a reluctant reader into curling up with a book!