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by Adam Rapp
HarperTempest, 2002
Review by Su Terry on Jan 29th 2003

The Buffalo Tree

Buffalo Tree by Adam Rapp is an intense novel about life in a juvenile detention home for boys. The novel describes the day-to-day existence of a twelve-year old boy as he plods through a six-month sentence in a juvenile detention home.

Buffalo Tree is set in Hamstock Boys Center.  Twelve-year old Sura has been given a six-month sentence for stealing “Hoodies” (car hood ornaments). As the novel opens, Sura is in his second month in Spalding Cottage at Hamstock. His “patchmate” (room mate) is Coly Jo. Coly Jo is also twelve-years old, but less mature. (He is afraid of the dark and given to crying at night.) He is in Hamstock for breaking (and entering) into people’s houses at night to watch them sleep. Hodge and Boo Boxfoot are two bullies also living in Spalding Cottage. They are older and use violence to get their way or to take whatever they want. (Boo has taken Coly Jo’s squirrel skin hat and Hodge is extorting money from Sura for use of a nightstand.) When Coly Jo steals back the tail from his squirrel skin hat, the bullies revenged the act by having a bucket of sewage dumped on Coly Jo. The incident traumatizes Coly Jo and his resultant behavior makes life more difficult for both of them.

Buffalo Tree is narrated by the character Sura. This offers a unique perspective and a challenge. Sura speaks as a young person and as an insider within the juvenile detention system. The narrative is his stream of conscience, but what is interesting is that he never drops his tough persona even when he should be feeling fear or sorrow. He does not view the adults running the detention center in a positive light. He views them as incompetent, abusive, or hypocritical in their behavior. Mister Rose, Spalding’s “cottage pop”, is viewed as cruel and sneaky, perhaps more interested in watching pornography than watching the boys at night. Dean Petty, Hamstock’s administrator, is cold and silent. Deacon Bob Fly, Sura’s “patch mentor”, seems focused on trying out the latest pop psychology technique rather than trying to help Sura. Unfortunately Sura views many of his co-juvies in flat or one-dimensional terms. Mazzie, Sura’s mom, who conceived him at fifteen, is still struggling to make it herself in the world. Sura also punctuates his story with the colorful vernacular of his environment. Generally, it is easy to figure out what he is talking about, but at other times, I was left totally confused. A glossary of slang might have been a useful inclusion.

Adam Rapp is a playwright and author. He was born and raised in Chicago and studied Creative Writing and Psychology at Clarke College. He has been an Artist in Residence at Vassar and Dartmouth. He was the recipient of the Herbert & Patricia Brodkin Scholarship (1997), two Lincoln Center LeComte du Nouy Awards, a fellowship to the Camargo Foundation, the Princess Grace Award for Playwrighting (1999), the Suite Residency with Mabou Mines (2000), the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays (2000), and the Helen Merrill Award (2001). His plays include Animals and Plants (A.R.T. New Stages), Ghosts in the Cottonwoods (Victory Gardens, Chicago; the 24th Street Theatre, Los Angeles; and the Arcola Theatre, London), Blackbird (the Bush Theatre, London; and the City Theatre, Pittsburgh), Finer Noble Gases (O’Neill Playwrights Conference, and Humana Festival, Louisville), Stone Cold dead Serious (A.R.T., Feb. 2002), Dreams of the Salthorse (Encore Theatre, San Francisco), and Faster (Rattlestick, New York).  Nocturne (2000) was selected as one of the Burns Mantle Ten Best Plays of the 2000-2001 Season. It was produced Off-Broadway (2001) and at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival (2002). It received Boston’s Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script and Best New Play by the Independent Reviewers of New England. His novels include Missing the Piano (1994/95 Best Book for Young Adults and 1995 Best Book for Reluctant Readers by the American Library Association), The Buffalo Tree (1997), The Copper Elephant (2000), and Little Chicago (2002). He is currently lives in New York City where he is a “Playwright in Residence” at Juilliard.

Buffalo Tree by Adam Rapp is definitely intense. While it is labeled for “Young Adult” it may be of more interest for pre-teens and while the novel is graphic and raw it does not graphically describe either physical violence or sex. I would recommend that adults read this book prior to recommending it to young people. This would also be a worthy book to be read by teachers and other professionals working with troubled youth. I highly recommend this book.

 

© 2003 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.