By Tanya Landman
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 978 1 4063 1459 5
What sort of teenage girl would steal the clothes from a man’s corpse and then join the army? One whose life is at rock-bottom and who will grab any chance to stay alive.
The end of the civil war has brought a cataclysmic change to the Southern states of the America by freeing the slaves who have worked there on the cotton plantations. These desperate times call for teenager Charley O’Hara to take desperate measures.
The South is in confusion. The slaves are now free from their white American masters, but their future is frighteningly uncertain. Charley is an orphan who has known nothing but the poor conditions and casual brutality of life on a plantation under white rule. The only person who has ever shown her any kind of kindness is Cookie, a fellow slave and the closest thing Charley has ever known to a mother.
When soldiers kill Cookie, Charley is left alone to cope with the “freedom” that has been forced upon her. The Civil War has technically liberated thousands of black slaves. At the same time, new government policies are sweeping away the freedoms of Native Americans who inhabit valuable land that the white Americans want. War is far from over as America struggles to find an identity.
Tanya Landman’s brilliant and uncompromising Buffalo Soldier, winner of the 2015 Carnegie Medal for children’s literature, is a powerful epic set against the backdrop of a very dark period of American history.
Charley is intelligent enough to realise that the prospect of being alone, young, black and female in the burned-out South is not an option if she wants to survive. Her next move is beyond desperate.
She steals a dead soldier’s uniform, and joins the army dressed as a man. After training, Charley moves with her cavalry regiment to the West to fight in the Indian Wars. She has become a Buffalo Soldier. Not only has she now to deal with a life of soldiering, but she has at all costs to hide her true identity.
It’s hard to believe Buffalo Soldier is real, but it’s based on a real former slave called Catherine Williams.
This is immensely powerful stuff, thrillingly relayed by a masterful and intuitive storyteller. It’s not always easy reading because the author doesn’t believe in sanitising history. But the more distressing events in Charley’s journey to real freedom are always sensitively handled, making this outstanding historical novel a must-read for older teens.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com