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Bluffton: My Summer with Buster Keaton

Review

Bluffton: My Summer with Buster Keaton

Henry Harrison is in for the summer of his life when a troupe of vaudeville performers visits his sleepy hometown of Muskegon, Michigan. He looks forward to spectacular variety shows featuring comedians, magicians, jugglers, musicians and dancers. Among the stars at the Actors’ Colony in nearby Bluffton is Buster Keaton, a young boy Henry’s age. Known as “the human mop,” Buster is famous for his role in his parents’ knockabout act, The Three Keatons. Whether he’s thrown around the stage or into the audience, Buster is indestructible. To top it off, he never cracks a smile --- making the show even funnier.

"It’s a testament to Matt Phelan’s abilities as a storyteller that he can make his fictional characters as believable and compelling as the historical ones. Summer at Bluffton brings out the extraordinary in everyone."

The two boys strike up a fast friendship. Henry envies the performer’s lifestyle and longs to add a few comic gags to his repertoire. Buster shows him the secret to safely performing pratfalls, by tensing certain muscles and relaxing others. But Buster is happy to take a vacation from stardom and simply enjoy the summer as an ordinary boy. He relishes their daily routine of fishing, swimming, playing baseball and pulling pranks.

Part of the magic and allure of their summer at Bluffton is its transience. All too soon, the season ends and the vaudeville community packs up its caravan of animals and tricks. Henry returns to the routine of working in his father’s hardware store and attending school. He counts down the days until Buster’s return.

The book spans the years 1908 to 1910, weaving in true anecdotes from Buster Keaton’s childhood and life on the vaudeville circuit at the turn of the century, before his breakout in silent movies (first as an actor and later as a director). Even the famous escape artist Harry Houdini makes a cameo. It’s a testament to Matt Phelan’s abilities as a storyteller that he can make his fictional characters as believable and compelling as the historical ones. Summer at Bluffton brings out the extraordinary in everyone.

Phelan takes full advantage of the graphic form. His storyboards pulse with cinematic energy and slapstick humor, paying homage to a master of silent film comedy. With his signature style and wit, Phelan introduces Buster Keaton to a new generation. What I wouldn’t give to be meeting The Great Stone Face for the first time myself.

Reviewed by Emma Kantor on June 13, 2013

Bluffton: My Summer with Buster Keaton
by Matt Phelan

  • Publication Date: May 9, 2017
  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763687065
  • ISBN-13: 9780763687069