From the Archives: Buffalo in the House

A Buffalo in the House, The Extraordinary story of Charlie and His FamilyR. D. RosenRandom House, 2007Now out in paperback is R.D. Rosen’s entertaining and enormously moving A Buffalo in the House, the story of how Veryl Goodnight and her husband Roger Brooks adopted a buffalo calf, named him Charlie, and made him a member of their bustling Santa Fe home. Charlie grows up (very quickly – two pounds a day!) to display a quiet good humor that is neither human nor canine nor feline but distinctly his own, and Rosen captures perfectly all the ways animals insinuate themselves into our hearts, as in a wrenching scene in which Charlie takes sick:

It was beginning to feel as if there was a glass partition between them [Charlie and Roger], the way there is between the healthy and the sick. Though the ill remain like us in every way but their illness, they inhabit a different world, fragile and unreliable, separated from others by the immediacy of their pain and fear. To dissipate some of the strangeness, humans can acknowledge it in words. Roger and Charlie seemed to have reached the limits of their extraordinary intimacy. Moreover, Charlie wouldn’t touch his food, which meant Roger couldn’t give him the antibiotics Dr. Callan had prescribed. In his stall, Charlie lowered his head and started eating dirt. It broke Roger’s heart.

The story of how one amazing family adapts to this one-ton orphan in their midst is just one strand of this entirely satisfying book. Veryl Goodnight is a descendant of Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight, who a century earlier had fought to preserve the last of the buffalo from extinction, and Rosen therefore spends a good amount of time studying not only the history of mankind’s interaction with buffalo in America but also the ongoing attempts at buffalo conservation – attempts Roger joins in, after Charlie’s death:

As he watched the proceedings on the other side of the river [buffalo, across the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park], Roger felt a brief surge of relief. The sight of the buffalo, the progeny of those few animals who had escaped through the cracks of a nightmare 130 years before, delivered him a moment from his mourning. Charlie had walked into his life, told his story, and then disappeared, but the story, and these buffalo, were still alive, and the gift was still in motion.

Those of you who missed Buffalo in the House when it was published last year should investigate it today; it’s an urgently memorable reading experience.