Bluffton by Matt Phelan
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: I was excited when the galley of Matt Phelan’s new graphic novel, Bluffton (Candlewick, July 23, 2013), showed up on my porch but when I flipped it over I was even more excited. The jacket copy promised the book was set in Muskegon, Michigan. What? That’s minutes from my house. Buster Keaton? Buster and his family and vaudeville performers used to vacation in Muskegon in the summer? I read the flap to my husband, who looked up from his Muskegon Chronicle newspaper and said, “Yes, they have a festival for Keaton every October in Muskegon and show his films at the Frauenthal Center. Maybe you should read the paper in addition to your novels and you’d know what’s going on….”
Phelan’s book is a sweet coming of age story, full of yearning. It features fictional Henry, son of hardware store owners, living in Muskegon Michigan in the early 1900s. Summers are full of work, baseball, and time at the beach. But Henry’s summer days get stranger and more exciting when the vaudeville troupe starring the Keaton family decides to found an artist colony and vacation there for the summers starting in 1908. Henry is drawn to the neighboring Bluffton area (a small peninsula of land sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake and bordered on the north by the channel between the two) to observe the antics of the new residents.
I read the book in a gulp. Henry is amazed to see a zebra and an elephant in the streets and on the beach and as his friendship with Buster develops he begs for lessons to learn how to do the stunts that Buster makes look so effortless. But Buster was one of a kind and they are not so easily learned…and Buster would rather enjoy his break from the stage with baseball. According to the author’s note, Buster’s love of baseball continued even when he left vaudeville in his teens and took the family to Hollywood to try his hand at the new movie business. He would stop filming and have his crew and actors play a few innings.
Young children reading this today probably do not know the art of vaudeville, but Phelan explains the entertainment form in words and pictures and they will get the idea. A graphic novel format is perfect for this subject, vaudeville humor having been such a visual art. I can’t wait for the release of this tomorrow so I can see the full color beauty of the finished copy. Henry’s story is as much about his own coming of age…what does he want to do when he grows up> Does he want to follow the family path and take over his father’s hardware store? His father gives him great advice:
Well, after reading Bluffton, I had to visit it. I’d driven through it before, I’d boated through the channel into Muskegon Lake many times but did not know the history I was passing. So, I downloaded a walking tour map from the Bluffton Actors’ Colony website and kidnapped Lynn for a Bookends tour of Bluffton. But I’ll let her tell you about that.
Lynn: I’m ALWAYS up for a road-trip – especially a book related road trip and I was just as amazed as Cindy to learn about the history of our neighboring town. But, before I talk about our fun day, I want to talk about this wonderful book. Phelan does a terrific job of not only giving kids a background understanding of what vaudeville was and its importance in popular culture, but he also evokes a wonderful sense of summer in this time and place as well as the universal longings of young people for another more glamorous life. Phelan gently reminds readers of the value and “glamor” to be found in our own home towns if we are willing to look.
I am lucky enough to have gotten a finished copy and the the warm palette of the watercolor illustrations is the perfect choice for this vintage but universal story. I especially admire Phelan’s ability to depict such personality and expression in each drawing. This is truly a lovely book to read over and over, to linger over, like summer.
Now back to the road trip. Clutching our map, Cindy and I wandered through the quiet neighborhood, locating the barn that held the elephant, the Keaton’s summer house, the location of Cobweb and Rafters and more. It was a lovely day trip back in time so read this book and come visit! Here is a picture of Buster Keaton’s house and the wonderful statue that we SHOULD have known about in front of the theatre in Muskegon.