When I hear the name Buster Keaton, images of black and white silent films spring to mind. Or at least, they used to. Now, however, I think more of a little boy, the son of vaudeville performers, and a small town in Michigan called Bluffton. This new picture is due to my reading Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan. In a historical fiction graphic novel of many pictures and few words, Matt Phelan tells the story of how Henry, a local at Bluffton, Michigan, becomes friends with the young Buster Keaton and grows up.
One summer, a zebra, an elephant, and a group of vaudeville performers take up residence in the quiet, lakeside town of Bluffton. To wide-eyed Henry this looks to be quite a summer, especially after he strikes up a friendship with one of the vaudeville children, Buster Keaton. Baseball, pranks, fishing, and swimming quickly while away the summer. Listening to Buster’s accounts of vaudeville life and watching Buster’s incredible stunts, Henry wants to learn to perform and dabbles in juggling. When summer ends, the performing troupe leaves, and Henry returns to the more mundane world of school and work. Finally, though, summer and the vaudeville troupe and Buster come again, and the second summer passes much like the first. Over the course of several summers, however, Henry changes. His admiration for Buster’s skills is easily evident, and he struggles to imitate his friend. Watching how Buster’s father makes Buster walk in his footsteps leads Henry to presume that his own father will want him to run the family store when he grows up. Henry struggles with what his future career will be. In the end, however, Henry’s father explains to Henry that he wants Henry to choose a career that will make him happy and that he doesn’t expect Henry to be a storeowner if that isn’t what he wants.
In addition to Bluffton’s story, the novel also contains delightful watercolor illustrations. Soft hues, quirky expressions, and quiet scenes all work together to tell the story and also grant Bluffton a whimsical tone that makes it pleasant and easy to read.
Bluffton compares the childhoods, families, and lives of Buster Keaton – who became world famous when he grew up – and Henry – an unremarkable small town boy. In the end, one comes away with the impression that Henry has a happier life than Buster Keaton, despite all of Keaton’s fame. Perhaps Phelan is reminding readers that fame is not what makes people happy and that a caring father and a happy family are much more important.