The sleepy life of 1908 Muskegon, Michigan gets a jolt when a vaudeville troupe comes through on its way to a summer layover in the coastal town of Bluffton. Our young protagonist, Henry, has never seen a vaudeville show, but his fascination with the actors knows no bounds. Every chance he gets, he takes the trolley to Bluffton for pickup baseball games with the youngest actors, to listen to the tales of the seasoned performers, and to get up to all kinds of mischief with his new best friend, a young vaudevillian called Buster.
Nostalgia abounds in this elegant historical fiction, whether it is the nostalgia for small towns, the fun filled days of childhood summers, the semi-glamorous days of vaudeville, or the classic days of trains, trolleys, and white-washed picket fences. While nothing is hurried in the book, the pace does not feel slow, especially since it is peppered with jokes, pranks, and crazy inventions.
Not paying attention, I did not pick up on the presence of Buster Keaton until I read the ending and author’s note. While Henry and the Muskegonites are fictional, the vaudeville cast is the genuine article: well-researched depictions of actual people. Readers would not need to know anything about Keaton to enjoy the book. Nor would it be necessary to know much about vaudeville. Henry, as an audience stand in, asks a long-time actor about it early on in the book and he is willing to fill in the details.
Phelan’s artwork always draws me into his books. His beautiful, dynamic watercolors perfectly portray the time period, with seamless transitions between the elegant depictions of the early 1900s and the pratfalls and comedy of the Actors’ Colony. Though faces are often just a couple sweeping lines and a few dots, they still manage to be expressive and full of emotion. The scenery serves as a dreamy stage for the characters, though I’d never imagined a prank-rigged outhouse to be the focus of a watercolor painting!
Perhaps it’s my own summer connections with the area, or my ever-growing fascination with vaudeville, but this is my favorite work of Phelan’s to date. The wistful mood serves as an undercurrent, while the main story oscillates between comedic stunts, fun, and some hints of the serious issues of the day like child labor or education. I look forward to future offerings from Matt Phelan, as well as to the Buster Keaton marathon he just inspired at my house.