So, obviously, Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman was always going to tick all the right boxes for me. It starts at the onset of the American Civil War. Our heroine, Charlotte, is a teenage kitchen slave, suffering all the arbitrary cruelty and deprivation of life on a plantation. As war breaks out, she experiences the downfall of the south, and discovers that the freedom she longs for brings with it starvation and insecurity. She makes the decision to disguise herself as a man and join the army. Now named Charley, she will be a ‘buffalo soldier’, as the Native American named the black soldiers. The army will pay her, feed her and give her a roof over her head, and, disguised as a man, she will no longer have to worry about the constant sexual threats from men which she is subjected to as a woman alone. What Charlotte doesn’t realise is that her job will involve chasing Native Americans off their tribal lands and enclosing them in reservations, depriving them of the freedom she’s struggling to maintain for herself.
It’s a fascinating book, gripping and surprising, full of horrors and tender moments. The focus is wide, wider than a lot of recent YA; we get not just a single story in a part of Charlotte’s life, but almost her whole life, from childhood to middle age. Possibly those moments when the story moves on several years could have been handled better. There is something about saying ‘they wandered about the countryside for a year or two’ that makes you feel something is missing, in a way that perhaps just moving on and making us aware that that is what has happened would not. It’s a minor quibble, and, really, Tanya Landman could hardly have given us every detail of all those years. The historical scope is huge. It will bring home to you ideas about how the USA has treated its citizens in a way that is more difficult to do in a history text book. And THAT is what I love about historical fiction.
Shortlisted for the Carnegie Prize 2015