Buffalo Soldier explores the nature of freedom in a searingly poignant story told from the perspective of Charlotte, a young African-American slave from the deep south of America at the end of the Civil War. After witnessing the rape and lynching of her adoptive mother, Charlotte is pitched all alone into a world of war and terror. Officially emancipated from slavery, she is still trapped by the colour of her skin but also by her gender. Now that even her value as a slave has been stripped from her, in desperation she dons a dead man’s clothes and joins the US Army, becoming ‘Charley’, a ‘buffalo soldier’. Her journey takes her from coast to coast cutting a swathe through a unpleasant period of US history, during which we see Buffalo Bill initiating the sanitisation of the historical record.
This is an extraordinarily powerful book, immaculately written in a sustained voice that never misses a beat. The analogies and observations that flesh out the narrative are superbly observed and always completely in character and period. We are literally observing the world according to Charley, and her take on it is skilfully developed throughout her journey.
Landman doesn’t shy away from the sights, sounds and language that characterized slavery and its aftermath, but the further that Charley moves away from the former Confederate slave states, the more she adopts the different spoken styles indicating the prejudices of the soldiers around her, in a changed world order in which the Native Americans are at the bottom of the heap. Yet she is finally shown the meaning of true freedom by an Apache with whom she is able to discover a viable identity for herself as a woman.
Important material is sensitively addressed, making this a must-read book for all over-twelves.