Friday, October 12, 2007

A Buffalo in the House by R.D. Rosen

I'm not generous with superlatives, but this is the best book I've read all year. R.D. Rosen interweaves the story of Charlie, an orphaned baby buffalo raised by a couple in Santa Fe, with the tragic history of the species in North America. The result is a fascinating and gripping narrative. Reviewers often describe a book as a "page turner" that they couldn't stop reading, but rarely does a work of non-fiction reach that level. I read A Buffalo in the House in one day.

The buffalo (the author uses buffalo and bison interchangeably, as most Americans do) is the last of several very large animals that used to roam North America, the only one to survive into the modern era. Although thought of as a phenomenon of the Great Plains, bison once traversed the entire U.S. except a handful of northeastern states -- English settlers encountered them in Virginia. Rosen tells the familiar, awful story of how 30 to 50 million bison were hunted to near-extinction in just a few decades in the late 1800s, but he also details the lesser-known efforts of the men and women who preserved the handful of wild herds remaining today.

The book begins with sculptor Veryl Goodnight, whose great, great uncle was the legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight. She wanted a baby buffalo to model for a piece called "Back from the Brink" honoring Charles' wife Mary Ann, who bottle-fed buffalo calves to create a herd of bison that lived in Texas' Palo Duro Canyon for a century (in 1997 they were relocated to nearby Caprock Canyons State Park).

The calf, named Charlie, was much more than just a model for Veryl's sculpture. Veryl's husband, Roger Brooks, developed an extraordinary relationship with the rapidly growing buffalo. Having Charlie in their lives led Veryl and Roger to discover many things about the past and present of the species, much of it revolving around Charles Goodnight. Some of the story lines don't have satisfying conclusions, but life is like that.

If I had to find a flaw in this book, it would be Roger's brief criticisms of the Iraq War. Although I agree with him, the comments seem unnecessarily divisive and incongruous (though not out-of-character) in a book that easily could have stood without them. But my wife didn't see them that way, so maybe I'm wrong.

Anyone who has ever loved an animal will enjoy A Buffalo in the House, as will anyone interested in bison or the history of the American West.

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