The Buffalo Tree (by Adam Rapp)

9 03 2014

thebuffalotreeIn 2005, Adam Rapp’s debut novel[1], The Buffalo Tree found itself in the midst of what the New York Times called a Culture War. This happened in the Muhlenberg School District, where – coincidentally – another book riot went on (and is still going on) at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. The petition that was started on Change.org by some of the students themselves, explains how books are being ‘red-flagged’ and how class and school libraries are at risk of losing many of its books because they might contain “inappropriate” content.

In the case of Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree – as is the case in most if not all instances of book challenges or attempted bans – the main issue is that those who want to ban it never actually read all the material they are protesting, and in the case of The Buffalo Tree, the school board only heard some passages taken out of context.

The Buffalo Tree has all the hallmark signs of “an Adam Rapp novel” and already show his mad talent. I’d previously read Punkzilla, The Children and the Wolves and 33 Snowfish, and each of those reading experiences left me shattered. Not just because of the harsh story of the kids in those books, but equally so by the unmistaken talent of Rapp as a word artist. Voice is his strength, and it’s no surprise then he’s also a playwright, and a really good one at that (even though I haven’t see any of his plays, I have no doubt believing that).

His experience as a playwright is all over those 3 YA novels, in which each character gets a very distinctive voice. In The Buffalo Tree, Rapp isn’t quite there yet, but it shows how good he is at having a character “be” that character completely, voice and all, enhancing the reality of that character from the inside out. And in Sura’s case – the 12-year-old boy who’s locked up in the Hamstock Boys Center for 6 months for stealing hoodies (car hood ornaments) – that means that he speaks tough, in a sort of juvy vernacular. It’s also Sura’s stream of consciousness perspective we get when the other Spalding juvies are described: Coly Jo, Sura’s (unfortunate) patchmate (cell mate) and Hodge and Boo (two juvy bullies). But like in other Rapp novels, it is fascinating to see how a kid like Sura views the adults of his surroundings: the cruel Mister Rose, Deacon Bob Fly, the resident ‘psychologist’ who’s intent on ‘getting through to Sura’, and none of them are seen in a positive light, except maybe for Sura’s mom, Mazzie – who got pregnant with Sura when she was 15.

Let’s face it, what happens in The Buffalo Tree is grim and hits you hard, but it’s a real world. Sura’s world in the juvy center and outside of the center is a bleak one: cruel, violent, abusive adults, and kids who may end up the same way as those adults, or kids who do not find the inner strength to overcome their situations. That too is something certain teens experience every single day. Every day is a battle for Sura and even after his release that feeling stays with him: “You get that old feeling back up in your bones”, but the hopeful thing to keep in mind here, that even though he might still get that feeling, he’s out.

Is a book with an almost naturalistically drawn story reason enough not to allow teens to have the ability to read this? OK, so that’s the most absurd question ever, which is why I can only respond with an Elle Horowitz original: “So, OK. The Attorney General says there’s too much violence on TV, and that should stop. Even if you took out all the violent shows, you could still see the news. So until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.” And if you don’t believe Elle, then read this. Also, it’s really great to hear that there are students willing to support what they believe in and say: “We refuse to be idle,” they say in their petition. “We need to show them that young adult literature is a life-changing thing for young people to be exposed to. We won’t stop until every book on every shelf of our school is saved.”


[1] (I found 1990 on Wikipedia for the first time this was published, making Rapp 22 at the time!

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