American Buffalo is a narrative tale of Rinella's hunt for this animal in the Alaskan wilderness. But beyond that, it is the story of the many ways in which the buffalo has shaped our national identity. Rinella takes us across the continent in search of the buffalo's past, present, and future.
The history is lightweight fare, more Bill Bryson than Shelby Foote, yet, Rinella writes well enough and I found it entertaining as well as informative. The basic outlines are probably familiar to everyone but there are lots of tidbits (for example, I never knew that a beaver coat was made from buffalo hide—the 'beaver' being a type of fur found on some specimens).
The education is doled out within the framework of Rinella's hunting expedition. Every year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game runs a lottery for a small number of permits to hunt a single buffalo. Most are never used as the hunting is fairly difficult. The minor difficulties are those imposed by the Department, including: no artificial light, no laser sights, no night-vision scopes, no machine guns (!), no explosives (!!). The major difficulty is imposed by Ahtna, Inc., the Native American corporation that owns the land around most of the major rivers. The buffalo are generally in the interior land, where you are allowed to be. However, to get there is another matter since Ahtna prohibits trespassing and prosecutes everyone who disobeys. Since there are no airstrips in the places you want to go, you have to follow the rivers, staying under the high water mark (i.e., on public land), then trek up small tributaries until you bypass the Ahtna land, then start bushwhacking your way into the interior through almost impassable scrub.
Rinella gives us a blow-by-blow account (definitely not in G-rated language) of his attempt to hunt one in the dead of winter. Just reading about it is exhausting, not to mention he nearly drowns, has a few nervous moments with grizzlies and gets frostbitten after immersion in an ice-filled river. He is able to convey a second-hand appreciation of the beauty, grandeur and isolation he encountered, and of the impact made when coming face-to-face with the largest land animal of North America. He also manages to convey his love of the outdoors and love for wildlife. This last aspect is what creates a bit of a discordant feeling for me in the book. He actually expresses this discord himself:
…how can I claim to love the very thing that I worked so hard to kill? I've thought of this often lately, yet I haven't been able to answer it with force and conviction. For now, I rely on a response that is admittedly glib: I just do, and I always will.
That answer is glib. I don't have a problem with someone hunting for food (Rinella spends days trekking all the meat out); I fish and I eat what I catch. I don't think that appreciation for wildlife and hunting are incompatible. However, the first 200 pages of the book work very hard to conjure some feeling of outrage at the casual killing of the animals and then, literally within a single page of the book, he looks up, unexpectedly sees some buffalo walking by, grabs his gun and shoots one with no pause and no more comment than, "The seriousness of what I'm about to do feels like a great weight."
It came a bit out of left field. I'm sure his moral and emotional landscape is more complex than it seems—some time later he says he feels an amalgamation of guilt, thankfulness for the food, appreciation of the animal's beauty and a regard for its history—however, none of that comes out during the passages describing the event. I don't think poor convictions; I think poor writing.
On the whole, I found the book entertaining and informative enough to give it a mild recommendation. I'm glad I read it. Depending upon the subject, I can see reading another Rinella book in the future, though I don't know that I'll be active in seeking them out. One last caveat: from the time he describes shooting the animal until the end of Chapter 14 are a series of some fairly graphic descriptions of butchering the animal. If this isn't something you can stomach, be prepared to let your eyes skim.
The information you learn about the buffalo and its role in early America is fascinating. He reports, for instance, that many of the original passages west were not formed from Indian trails but from buffalo paths, which are not only nicely wide and flattened, but led pioneers to resources they needed: water, salt, meadows, and optimal sites for river crossings. He tells a great story about early American efforts to connect the east and west with telegraph wires: buffalos loved to scratch themselves against the poles, and would keep at it until the poles toppled over. Officials then drove spikes into the poles, but apparently the buffalo liked the spikes even better!
Native Americans don’t fare any better than early hunting non-natives in the history of the buffalo’s slaughter. Even before Native Americans got horses and guns from the Spanish, they had many techniques to kill buffalo, including the old drive-them-off-the-cliff method. And Rinella, who claims to love and revere the buffalo, gives you a blow-by-blow of his slice-and-dice when he finally kills one. But admittedly, the hunter mentality is something so alien to me I cannot comprehend the logic.
Rinella also doesn’t leave out any specifics about his camping adventure, down to his eating, dressing, sleeping, and bathroom routines. But this does have interest from a survivalist perspective. And in the midst of all the “then I ate a burrito” details, we get lots and lots of information about the buffalo, including background on the ten-year bloodbath for hides that nearly killed off all the buffalo in the late 1800’s. (By the time sculptor James Fraser was commissioned to create the Buffalo nickel, there were only 2,200 or so buffalo left out of an estimated 32 milion in the Great Plains alone.) There’s not much chaff to separate out of the wheat; you will be amazed at how much there really is to know about the buffalo, and about how interesting it is.
I can’t say I ever warmed up to Rinella as a person, but I was edified by the book, and glad to have read it.
And this book is more about adventure than hunting. Living in the Alaskan wilderness with only what you brought or what you could find while stalking a monstrous beast in his territory and keeping an eye out for poachers is not for the faint of heart. And while I am not a hunter but thoroughly enjoyed this book and as such I don't agree with some reviewers that feel that Rinella's detailed descriptions of the hunt and the subsequent cleaning of his kill might be unappreciated by non-hunting readers. (Though at the risk of sounding sexist, generally speaking it will probably be more palatable to the male audience.) Rinella educates us on the once-glorious American buffalo and the impact it had on our country's ecosystems and native peoples.
When I was a little kid, my parents and grandparents used to take us to the Ft. Worth Stock Show and they would always buy my brother and I a 'grab bag' prize -- they paid a buck and we grabbed a brown-paper bag out of a large bin which had some to-be-treasured little trinket inside. I remember that one year I got a buffalo cast of hard plastic that was about the size of the palm of an adult's hand. We had seen a buffalo at the stock show and I had been impressed by its menacing size and look so for years that cast buffalo was counted among my worldly treasures and I have been interested in the great animal ever since. Rinella's account made rich with ample and detailed background information took me back to those days. The author really makes you really feel that we Americans have really lost something with the near-disappearance of this living 'lost icon'.
Mr. Rinella weaves an engaging tale of a very difficult hunt with an interesting, and eye-opening, history of the animal. There were many things that I thought I knew only to have been proven wrong by Mr. Rinella's meticulous research. It seems Rinella visited every historic, and oddball, place relevant to the American Buffalo. It's a trip that must have been a lot of fun.
The books starts just after Rinella shoots the buffalo. After that I quickly devoured the rest of the book wanting to know what happened on the hunt.
My only disappointment was coming to the last page, it was too short.
When the book is released in a few weeks, I plan on picking up a couple copies for my friends. I can recommend this book with no reservations.
His writing style, which is conversational, draws you into the adventure, although sometimes it seems like the detail is excessive. Take for instance: “I continued along northward until I hit I-90, and then I headed west, crossing the Continental Divide and dropping down into the town of Butte, where I bought a bean burrito.” He makes fun of himself in the beginning of the book for being a fright at parties whenever he manages to turn the subject to buffalo, and the warning is apt as some parts of the book just felt like Rinella was trying to get everything in, without being willing to spare the reader a single detail. However, his descriptions are vivid and often entertaining enough that you can’t help but feel his enthusiasm. I also found it fun how his apparent loathing of clichés leads to some very surprising similes, such as “…my skin feels like the inside of a wet plastic bag full of mushrooms,” and “…the boulders in the river are getting capped in opaque layers of frozen froth that remind me of shower caps from cheap motels.”
The strength of the book lies in his contemplation of the cultural significance of the buffalo, from its place in Native American society to its role as a national symbol today. He points out some interesting things I never knew about, for example, that Native Americans, while maintaining the reputation that they used every part of the animals they killed, did not actually use every part of every animal and sometimes just took the hide or the tail. He also looks at the relationship between the animal and modern hunters: how you can simultaneously revere an animal and feel a sense of achievement on killing it.
This book is an interesting mix of adventure, fact, and human insight, and you don’t have to already be a buffalo enthusiast to take something away from it (although I suppose that would help quite a bit).
Release date: Dec. 2, 2008
Many thanks to Spiegel & Grau for this advance copy.
Rinella does a good job with the basic history of the American Bison and mixes it well with his personal story of a Buffalo hunt. My only quibble is that I don't get a broad sense of who the author is.
The author's fascination with the majestic animal began when he was a child. While on a hunting trip with his brothers he unearthed part of a buffalo's skull. He's been hooked since and even commented on the frequency of buffalo coming up in conversations. He's developed his own word game of random association of related facts and trivia. I was surprised that there were so many ways to do that. (I live near Buffalo, NY so that's one I can think of.) Steven has gone to great lengths to learn every possible fact there is. As he describes his trip in the Alaskan wilderness he interweaves within his chapters all of those details of the history of the buffalo in North America. From the Native Americans to current times he explains everything about how they have hunted this huge animal and why. Because of their size, over one thousand pounds, hunters have had to be creative over the years. Sometimes weapons were used and sometimes they were able to use the land to their advantage. Indians used the "buffalo jump" to effectively kill many animals by gently herding them across a plain and then creating a stampede to drive them over a precipice, an act much more complicated than I would have imagined.
Although this does not emphasize the brutality of hunting and killing, it is described in detail. Growing up on a farm I'm no stranger to using animals for a food source but I do adore animals and don't even like to squash bugs. The stories of how buffalo were hunted, injuries they sustained and how the body was cut up and used after a killing bothered me. I was impressed though when all parts of the animal were used in as many ways as possible. Everything from the fat used as grease, and hair for stuffing in pillows, to buffalo "chips" used to burn in fires.
Steven Rinella's story telling is enhanced with black and white photos and footnotes. He has a dozen pages for his notes for each chapter and the bibliography. Although some of the information he provides may be more interesting to fellow hunters and nature lovers, it's by no means boring to those of us who aren't. He knows his subject well and is a very effective storyteller.
When most people are asked to name the first visual image that comes to mind when someone says, "America", I would imagine that the bald eagle or the Statue of Liberty is at the top of many lists. They aren't my first choices. My first choice is the buffalo. When I was ten, my grandparents took my mother and me on a road trip across the country to Grass Valley, California. I will never forget coming over a rise outside of Cody, Wyoming, and seeing a herd of buffalo grazing out on the prairie. That has been one of the supreme Kodak Moments of my life.
Steven Rinella is also fascinated with buffalo. In 2005, he won a lottery to hunt for a wild buffalo in the Alaskan wilderness. One of only four hunters who succeeded in killing one, he found himself contemplating his place among 14,000 years' worth of North American buffalo hunters and the place of the buffalo in the American consciousness. The result is this book.
Not only is this book a memoir of that hunt, it is also filled with humor, anxiety, and fascinating facts about buffalo. From time to time, I found the transitions between buffalo lore and his hunt in Alaska to be a bit abrupt, but it didn't lessen my enjoyment of the book. I have to admit that I chose to read American Buffalo with a bit of trepidation: although I grew up hunting with my grandfather, the only type I do now is behind the lens of my camera. I wondered why, if Rinella is so fascinated with them, he would choose to kill one. It is a question that he raises himself in his book, and I appreciated the answer.
After reading American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, not only do I know a lot more about the creatures that so catch my imagination, I also know more about the rigors of camping and hunting in the Alaskan wilderness. It's also reminded me that there's a herd of wild buffalo at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I really want to see them!
In American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, Steven Rinella charts the course of this symbolic animal through American, and pre-American, history. After years of fascination with the American buffalo, Rinella won a coveted permit to hunt one in Alaska. American Buffalo begins with his success in the hunt and then takes us back to his first personal encounter with a buffalo.
Rinella is skilled at making the history of the buffalo on the North American continent both interesting and relevant. His search for the buffalo's meaning has taken him across the country several times making for a personal connection throughout his narrative. Interspersed with the buffalo's history is Rinella's hunting tale, which is also compelling. I can't imagine being alone in the wilds of Alaska yet felt as if I were right there beside Rinella.
I grew up in northern Indiana with a hunting father so Rinella's detailed description of his hunt, and more specifically, his kill didn't really bother me. If you are anti-hunting or have a weak stomach, you may have difficulty with some of the later passages in the book. This is just fair warning, however, because I still think you should read this book. Rinella gives great insight into the American buffalo and its ties to our history. I'll be watching for future contributions from this author.