So, Goodreads has been recommending Water Buffalo Days to me for some time. (If you haven’t joined Goodreads yet, you’re missing out). It looked cute and when I saw it at this last book sale, I snatched it up!
When old Water Jug dies, Nhuong’s father determines to buy a water buffalo calf that will become the new leader of the village herd. But only an exceptional bull can lead a herd; he must be active and strong enough to defend the herd from tigers, wild boars, and crocodiles, but he must also be intelligent and discerning. He must be brave but not foolhardy; big but not awkward. Where can such a bull be found?
Nhuong’s father sets off for the next village and spends several days searching for the perfect calf. He finally finds him and brings him home to begin training. Nhuong and the calf develop a tentative relationship that quickly develops into a deep friendship. Then ensues a time of romping and exploring. As Nhuong says;
Some of the best times of my life were spent roaming the rice field, riding on the young buffalo’s back. I had ridden old Water Jug, but I had done so only when the old bull had not been needed in the field or at home. The calf’s time was not yet in demand, so we were free to explore all the nooks and corners of the field or leisurely catch all kinds of living creatures for food or for fun. [pg. 31]
But the time approaches when the calf must challenge Hurricane for leadership of the village herd. Has he grown strong enough, brave enough? Will the calf win or be trampled down by Hurricane?
One of the things that I enjoyed so much about Water Buffalo Days is that it was different. Its setting was different, its characters were different, its story was different; it was just different. I mean, I never dreamed that there was a place out in Vietnam where all of the villagers would gather together to watch two water buffalo bulls fight over who led the village herd. I didn’t know that people even owned water buffaloes, much less that they occupied a place in Vietnamese social structure!
Nhuong’s father is an intelligent, respectable man. He is intensely concerned for the well-being of his family and herd, but he is also considerate. After Tank (the calf) defeats Hurricane, he tells Nhuong, “not to speak too much about our bull, especially in the presence of O Lim and his relatives, who had suffered the loss of Hurricane.” [pg. 57] I thought this was magnanimous, especially since Tank’s exploits placed Nhuong’s family in a high position in their community.
When Nhong’s father first purchases Tank, he warns Nhuong not to spend time alone with Tank for safety reasons. In most children’s stories, the main character would have back-talked or gone off seething because ‘dad just doesn’t understand’. Here’s how Nhuong responds.
I listened to my father, but my trust in the calf never diminished. [pg. 24]
Nhuong never attemps to conduct a clandestine relationship with Tank and only spends time with him whenever a third party is present. It is not until Nhuong’s father witnesses their closeness and gives them permission that Nhuong and Tank spend time together alone.
Once when out hunting with Tank and Midnight, Nhuong is bitten by an otter. He captures the otter and storms home angrily planning his revenge. He comes up with all sorts of wild ideas, but his parents reason with him and help him to see the unreasonableness of punishing the otter for defending himself. He sets the otter free.
There are no real cautions. On several occasion Tank fights with different animals to protect his herd or masters. The scenes are a little intense, but not gory – streams of blood flow from wounds, but it isn’t dwelt upon. If your child is especially sensitive to violence, you may want to skim through each of the fights yourself before letting him read it (they occur in chapters ‘Naming the Bull’, ‘A Fierce Fighter’, and ‘Tiger Ambush’), but most children will be fine.
After Tank kills the tiger, its teeth are dispersed among the villagers, “because according to old beliefs, tiger claws and teeth ward off the devils that make children sick.” [pg. 111]
*MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!* On page 114, Nhuong burns incense on Tank’s grave. It’s not explained why he did it, just stated that he did do it.
Conclusion. A truly unique story and a new favorite of mine.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret