“The rain is different in Tennessee,” said my friend. She and her husband, both Texans, lived in Nashville during his residency. “It just rains — it doesn’t storm. No thunder, no lightning,” she said.
I was shocked. How could there be rain without thunder and lightning? I live in a state where thunderstorms are more common than plain rain. When a storm’s a’comin’, we go outside to watch it. Sometimes we video it. Then we discuss it in detail.
So The Buffalo Storm was an interesting read for me because our hero, Hallie, is “not afraid of anything, except storms.” As she and her family travel the Oregon Trail, she encounters two kinds of storms — one she expects and one she doesn’t.
I listened to the book online before I read it. It took three weeks for it to travel seventy-five miles through Interlibrary Loan, much like the slow pace of an actual wagon train. I had questions as I listened, and those questions grew larger when I had the actual book in my hands.
The author, Katherine Applegate, is known for the Animorphs series, which she wrote with her husband, and she won a Newbery for The One and Only Ivan, about a gorilla. She has a new middle-grade novel releasing in September called Wishtree, from the point of view of an oak tree. This is her first and, so far, only picture book, published in 2007. She has a poet’s talent for using only a few words to convey a lot of meaning.
Which way is home? I asked.
She pointed to my heart. There inside, she said,
there is home.
But I knew inside was just a hard place hurting.
For those of you who are new to children’s books, especially picture books, think of a poem, a handful of words on a page. Each word is necessary, and each word is in the exact right place. Now, imagine that poem spread across a standard 32-page picture book, with illustrations supplementing the words. The pictures should not only be pretty or catchy but should illuminate the text, giving us information the words don’t.
Artist Jan Ormerod’s watercolors and pastels are muted. There’s a sense of isolation, as if we are cut off from seeing the characters and the landscape clearly. In some pictures it almost looks like Ormerod painted over a sepia photograph.
The faces of Hallie’s parents are never in focus. Her dad’s face is usually covered by a hat. Her mother’s face is most visible once they reach Oregon, but even then, her eyes are closed. Hallie seems somehow cut off from them, even as they make this journey together.
The character most fully conveyed is the grandmother, whose face draws us in. Her relationship with Hallie seems to be more significant than Hallie’s relationship with her parents. But Grandmother isn’t making the cross-country trip.
I am old and this is home,
But I’ll be with you just the same.
Grandmother gives Hallie paper, envelopes, a pen, and a jar of ink so she can write about the wonders of the West — prairie dogs, coyotes, and buffalo.
What a gift to hear the earth rumble as they run!
The family’s journey isn’t sugarcoated, making me wonder if this book is a good choice for the age range specified, four- to seven-year-olds. If kids are familiar with the perils of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, maybe. In this book, Hallie falls out of the wagon into an icy creek, the oxen’s hooves bleed, and the men on the wagon train are anxious to kill buffalo “just to watch their great bodies fall.”
But these trials are not the story’s focus; the real issue is thunderstorms. Hallie and her grandmother both fear them, but at home, they are afraid together. When the wagon train encounters a storm with hail in Nebraska, Hallie has her grandmother’s quilt to comfort her, although it’s not the same as her grandmother’s arms.
Back home she’d sing while the thunder rolled,
but now her voice was lost to me
Then we get to the crux of the book — Hallie’s encounter with the buffalo — which takes up ten pages. Hallie gets lost while searching for buffalo chips and then spots a trapped buffalo calf. She rescues it, something she feels she can do because of work she’s done with Grandmother back home.
She’d be no more trouble than a wide-eyed colt,
the one I’d tamed with my grandmother’s help.
Suddenly, there is a new storm, a buffalo storm, meaning, a herd of buffalo running. As they make a sound “like boulders breaking,” Hallie remembers her grandmother’s words, “What a gift to hear the earth rumble as they run!”
But I have to ask, Why are they running? Buffalo don’t run unless there is danger or at least perceived danger. Is Hallie in danger?
She doesn’t think so. This girl who has always been afraid of thunderstorms is not afraid in this moment.
Fine storm! I shouted,
and laughed just the way I knew
my grandmother would have laughed.
what a gift, I thought,
feeling my grandmother there,
there with me at last.
From an artistic standpoint, the next two pages, 28-29, are my favorites: a spread of prairie, storm clouds, a slight clearing in the sky, and down at the bottom of the page, the wagon train, small and distant. The text says Hallie “kept walking,” and she must have had to walk a long way because the text says, “At last, the wagons came into view.” But even though she’s walking while it thunders, this time she’s unafraid. After the buffalo storm, nothing is scary.
When she finally reaches the wagon train, just as the rain starts, her parents respond …
No idea. Not one word, not one picture.
Did they notice she was gone? How long was she gone anyway? How long does it take to rescue a calf and watch a stampede? Hours? Did her parents notice she wasn’t hiding under her grandmother’s quilt when the thunder started? Did Hallie tell them about her newfound sense of empowerment gained through being alone with a herd of wild animals?
My questions have no answers. On the next two pages, 30-31, the family is happy and huggy at their new home in Oregon.
The story ends as Hallie writes her grandmother and tells her about her new baby sister, Olympia. (It was Hallie’s idea to name the baby after Grandmother.) She even echoes her grandmother’s parting words to her before the family left for Oregon: “I promise I’ll be with you, just the same.”
The Buffalo Storm does a lot of things good picture books do, like the repetition of those words between Grandmother and Hallie at the beginning and end of the book. Many things happen in threes (“hay and horse and pine,” and “pushed and yanked and grunted,” and “huge and surly and crazed with life”). The text is full of wonderful similes (“like a bread loaf ready for the oven,” and “like beads slowly stringing,” and “like a black ocean surging”). Our hero grows in this story — in independence, in love, and in bravery.
But I would have liked a little more exposition between pages 29 and 30.
What did you like? What perplexed you? What did you notice? How about that chicken on the penultimate page?
Our next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, September 15. We will be reading One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi.
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