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My summer with Buster Keaton
by Matt Phelan
2013 / 240 pages

Before there were silent films, there was vaudeville. Pay your nickel and you could sit in on a dozen acts: jugglers, comedians, contortionists, animal trainers, tightrope actors, and more.

In 1908, vaudeville came to Bluffton, Michigan, a troop of actors looking to take their summer break by the lake. And Henry can’t get enough of hanging out with the whole lot of them, especially a boy his own age, Buster Keaton. Henry wants to learn how Buster can take a licking in his on-stage slapstick act and bounce right up again, but all Buster wants to do is play baseball.

While Henry is fictional, Buster Keaton is not. He was one of the silent film era’s biggest comedic stars, maybe not quite as well known as Charlie Chaplin, but twice as funny. This account of his early years is maybe as much supposition as fact, accurate in the broad overview if not in any of the details.

Bluffton is an intriguing read for the slice of life it presents from more than 100 years past. Back then entertainment wasn’t available at the ready in a person’s back pocket, so when it came to your town, that was an event. The Keaton family act was physical, like the films Buster made later. He always knew how to pratfall with the best of them, and without getting hurt. And that the ol’ “Stone Face Keaton” never cracks a smile makes it all the funnier.

The story is told over the course of three summers – Henry and Buster become the best of friends, a girl comes between them, at least for a bit, and then, finally, life takes them in very different directions.


The language concerns are limited to “Jumping Jehoshaphat,” “Holy smokes,” and “Holy cow.” Also worth a note is that the physical nature of the Keaton family act had an early version of Child Protective Services investigating the family for child abuse. While no charges were laid, it is a sober subject – child abuse – even if it is only touched on in passing. That’s why this isn’t for young readers, though the size, and quiet pacing, means they aren’t likely to pick it up anyways.


For the right person this will be a quick read. It’s 240 pages but not too many words on each, and so much is shown rather than told.

It is for the history buff, especially if anyone who likes older films. Keaton was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1920s and 30s,  and we get to see what shaped him early on. While Bluffton is a beautifully done book, it is not one with universal appeal – I think it fascinating, but I know what only a select few will agree.

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Book Reviews, Graphic novels

Snow White

by Matt Phelan 216 pages / 2016 This is Snow White inventively reimagined as a 1920s Depression-era American tale. The "king" is a stock trader who has managed to survive the stock market crash. The stepmother is still a queen, but this time of the Ziegfield Follies, a popular Broadway show. The mirror is now a stock ticker, and the seven dwarves are seven street-smart kids. Prince Charming? Well, I shouldn't give too much away! Though over 200 pages, this is a very quick read, because it is much more pictures than text - several times there are stretches going on for pages, where there are no words at all. I first thought it would be hard to pick exactly who'd be the ideal audience. Fairytales are typically for children, but this seemed too somber to attract little ones – done in a black and white, it has a dark, noir style...all but for the last few pages with their happily-ever-after full-color conclusion. Some of the historical touches only adults would pick up on, but how many of them would pick it up? It's listed as for teens at my local library, but our Christian school library also got it, and there it seems more of a tween hit - my own tweens have taken it out a few times already. Cautions There are no real cautions to offer - if a child is old enough to read the original, then they will be old enough to read this one. There is a drop or two of blood here and there, but no gore. The worst is probably the pig or cow heart we see in full color at one point (in keeping with the original story). And there are no language concerns either. Conclusion This is an inventive, and very intriguing tale, done with style. Adults can't help but appreciate it, but it's really tweens who will most enjoy it....