Thunder Buffalo Goes Home
by Mark A. Cornelius
Quantum Discovery

"'Old, Old Buffalo,’ Thunder sighed, ‘what is Home?’ As wise as Old, Old Buffalo was, he had never heard of Home, so he asked Thunder a wise question. ‘What do you think Home is?’"

Thunder Buffalo lives on the sun-dappled prairies of South Dakota, where he has seemingly everything essential to make a buffalo happy: companionship, sweet grass, and the mentorship of Old, Old Buffalo, the oldest and wisest buffalo in the herd. At night he performs his celebrated Thunder Dance while the other buffalo stamp and cheer in delight. But Thunder Buffalo isn’t entirely happy, as he realizes one day when a male human appears on the prairie in a fast-moving car and speaks to him of “Love” and “Home,” mysterious words that stir a note of yearning in the young buffalo’s heart. The man offers to take him away to live with him. After conferring with Old, Old Buffalo, Thunder Buffalo agrees to journey away with the man, though he promises to return once a year and tell of his adventures in distant lands. He enters the “man-wagon” and, after much travel, arrives at a vast pasture where the man’s children lavish him with great affection, brushing his woolly coat and feeding him dandelions.

The author’s book is written with a rare sensitivity and a refreshing lack of condescension, and the journeys it depicts—both internal and external—lend the story the air of myth. The author takes pains to portray how strange the world of humans must appear from a buffalo’s perspective, inventing his own kennings—"man-calves” for children, “man-box” for a house—in much the same way that Richard Adams did for rabbits in Watership Down. Taking a page from Bruno Bettelheim’s insights into the psychology of storytelling for children, he creates a protagonist whose desires reflect a child’s most basic needs for safety, love, and belonging. This careful attention to the inner worlds of his readers makes Thunder Buffalo’s fate reassuring and resonant.

Early in the story, Thunder Buffalo offers his own definition of home—“a big living place, like the prairie, but all closed in”—and children reading the story may be prompted to wonder whether his understanding changes between the beginning of the book and its end and how a home for a person might differ from that of a buffalo. Any deeper meanings, however, are sneakily hidden amid the memorable imagery and whimsical characterizations, ably abetted by Shay Nicole Cavender’s gorgeous illustrations. The opening passages portraying the buffalo way of life—rolling in mud, trying to avoid prairie dog holes, dancing, and stomping—set the tone for the rest of the story, a tone that’s often cute without ever being cloying. Admirably, Cornelius trusts the intelligence of his audience: there is no gross-out humor, only the joy of discovering this strange culture with its distinct quirks and fully realized personalities.

Structurally, the narrative could have benefited from an additional story beat or two between Thunder Buffalo’s leaving the herd and the end of the book. Overall, however, this story radiates warmth and kindness. Its leisurely pace offers a sane antidote to the chaos and noise of much contemporary entertainment for children. It is a book to be savored by both young and old.

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