BUFFALO SPIRITS by Elizabeth Black


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A middle-aged Chicago journalist revisits the Kansas plains of her childhood.

Chicago-based “nomad” and Tribune bigwig Rebecca Kluger perpetually jeopardizes her thriving career by jetting west without warning or vacation time. She’s usually on the trail of her elusive brother Tom, who prefers wilderness to kin, and the two finally reunite to return to descendants in Oklahoma the ancestral remains of members of the Nadi-ish-dena tribe, who once lived on land the Kluger family later farmed. First, however, Rebecca examines the bones of her own past in a first-person narrative pastiche that’s rich in anecdote but weak on sustained development. She zips through childhood, college, the move to Chicago, a few affairs, and her meteoric, seemingly effortless rise from cub reporter to foreign correspondent, all the while remaining spiritually tethered to her home state. (Black offers a moving, and justifiably tragic, depiction of the fate of the farmers, land, slaughtered buffalo, and feedlot-incarcerated cattle of the Great Plains.) The pace slows abruptly once Rebecca finds Tom; our heroine does less summarizing and more storytelling, but still tends to “report” her emotions. Meanwhile, her fellow characters rarely manage to elbow Rebecca aside long enough to enact an entire scene, but a few get to have their say nonetheless. Interspersed with Rebecca’s chronicle are monologues by long-dead but still talkative Nadi-ish-dena, who give their own accounts of the West’s shameful history. These passages are often engrossing—one woman’s “journey to the other side of the Sun” to visit Louis XV’s court is especially dizzying—but they also contain clunkers like “He carried the wisdom of eagles in his heart.” The parallel narratives and their characters intertwine with increasing frequency, and while some of the resulting coincidences are unpredictable, others will strain the credulity even of readers willing to grant the guidance of the spirit world.

An impassioned debut, but the people get lost in the landscape.

Pub Date: Dec. 22nd, 2003
ISBN: 1-58654-032-7
Page count: 359pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2003