Fuse #8

Monday, October 23, 2006

Review of the Day: Saving the Buffalo

You are an author. You have decided to write two non-fiction children’s books on two entirely different animals: rats and buffalos. As such, you will need to devote just as much energy to one as to the other. The rat book, one might assume, is relatively easy. Rats (as found in the book, “Oh Rats: The Story of Rats and People”) are disgusting/fascinating creatures that lend themselves to interesting writing. And then there are the buffalo to consider. Unlike rats, buffalo might seem a much more difficult subject. A lesser author might quail at the thought of producing a 128 page lushly illustrated, meticulously cited, and FUN book recounting the history of this King of the Plains. You, however, are Albert Marrin and you’ve got skills (as they say in the biz). So lo and behold this is the result: “Saving the Buffalo”, by Albert Marrin. More interesting than it has any right to be, Marrin skillfully tells not only the tale of what a buffalo was and how it was saved, but also how they fit into the plain’s ecological balance alongside the larger implications of their near disappearance.

Things you might not have known about the buffalo prior to reading this book:

1. The removal of the buffalo from the plains contributed significantly to the Dust Bowl of the 30s.

2. Wild buffalo have terrible eyesight, a great sense of smell, and won’t mind if a human comes up to them on all fours wearing a wolf’s skin.

3. Teddy Roosevelt and the ASPCA played a large part in the return of the buffalo to the wild.

And on and on it goes. Marrin pulls fact after fact about the buffalo out of his hat, all the while doing so within the structure of the story. Basically, the book begins by giving you a little background on buffalo basics. What they look like, how much they eat, their mating habits, size, etc. Two separate chapters then discuss how different tribes of Native Americans hunted buffalo, and this part is truly engrossing. The section on Native Americans before the introduction of horses to America and how they hunted buffalo is meticulous. We learn about trading routes between the agricultural Hopi and other Pueblo people and how they contributed to the nomadic plains Indians diet. We see elaborate and incredibly well thought out buffalo jumps, such as the Head-Smashed-In World Heritage Site. And THEN we find out what it was like when horses came to America and everything changed. After that it’s two chapters, one called “The War On the Buffalo” and “Saving the Buffalo”, which are fairly self-explanatory. There’s a distinct structure to the book, but it allows for all kinds of tidbits and remarkable illustrations to dot the text the whole way through.

Actually, as much as I would like to credit Marrin only with superb writing, his illustration choices are just as impressive. In full-color prints we see great paintings of the buffalo in their prime by people like John Mix Stanley, Meyer Straus, and of course George Catlin. Photographs of buffalo today illustrate their bone structure, the difference between female buffalo and male, and the look of a herd as it moves. Then we have photos from the height of the war against the buffalo. Shocking photographs like that of three “sportsmen” standing in front of at least twenty-two taxidermied buffalo heads, to say nothing of the mountain of buffalo skulls later in the book, drill home the wastefulness that came with the destruction of the “Lord of the Plains”.

Just the level of detail Marrin has taken with his book elicits respect. He spots his children’s non-fiction book with endnotes, something more authors should consider taking the time to do. In addition to this, there is also a Glossary, a list of books containing further information (both for “young people” AND “adults”) as well as a much needed list of reliable Web Sites, and an Index. When Marrin shows an image of native hunters impounding buffalo, he notes that the engraving “combines fact and fiction”. The picture displays the “pound” close to a native village. Says the caption, “With their keen sense of smell, the buffalo would have easily detected the village and run away.” Well noted, sir.

There is an odd moment at the beginning of the book where Marrin seems to feel obligated to note every single way a buffalo could have died, aside from at the hands of man. As such, Marrin recounts seasonal changes, thin ice, quicksand, mud, lightning, fire, wolves, and stampedes with perhaps an unhealthy interest. All that aside, this is one of the foremost non-fiction titles of 2006 and a heckuva good read to boot. Kids will find it interesting, adults will find it informative, and people who are entirely picture oriented will be able to take something from it as well. Great great stuff.

Notes On the Cover: Who’s a smart little jacket designer? That’s right, I’m talking about you, Nancy Sabato. You just want to plunge both your hands into the thick wool of this cover and never take them out again. What a magnificent photograph! What a great cover! Honestly, I did not initially want to read this book, but something about the cover convinced me to pick it up and enjoy it for all that it was worth. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how covers are supposed to work. Take note.

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