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Buffum and In Country: American Veterans across Centuries

Bobbie Ann Mason's 1985 novel In Country is a study of the legacies of the Vietnam War in the small Kentucky town of Hopewell. Sam Hughes, the teenaged protagonist, lives with the ghosts of her father Dwayne, killed in action before she was born, and her uncle Emmett, who survived the conflict but seems trapped by it two decades later.

Robert Buffum's war and Robert Buffum's wartime experience were very different from those of Dwayne Hughes and Emmett Smith a century later. But Mason's portrait of a veteran's family struggling to understand loss, memory, and incomplete efforts to forget might help readers access the life that Robert Buffum, his wife Sarah, and their children tried—and failed—to put back together in the late 1860s.

Buy a copy of In Country from Harper Collins, consider the discussion questions in the official reading guide on your own or with a small group, and watch Mason read selections from the novel.


Robert Buffum and In Country Discussion Questions

  • Having read about Sam’s relationship with the Vietnam War, how do you imagine the children of Robert and Sarah Buffum understood the Civil War? 

  • What do you imagine that Emmett and Robert Buffum would say to one another if they met? What do you think they would have in common? How did their experiences of war—and of coming back home from war—compare to one another?

  • Do you think Robert Buffum would share Emmett’s pessimism at the U.S. government’s handling of potential Agent Orange exposure?

  • Emmett once snaps at Sam, saying “Women weren’t over there…they can’t really understand”. Sam pushes back, saying that in addition to women serving as nurses in Vietnam, “Mom took care of you all those years, and you think she didn’t understand?” (p. 107; ch. 16). How do you think Sarah Buffum would react to both sides of that conversation?

  • Robert Buffum lost a brother in the Kansas conflict that preceded the Civil War, and Emmett lost his brother-in-law in Vietnam. How do you think those losses affected them during their own service? Did those losses affect them in different ways after their wars ended and both men returned to their families?

  • After Sam reads her father’s diary and after Emmett tells her the story of being stranded alone after his patrol was ambushed, Sam observes that “In his diary, her father seemed to whimper, but Emmett’s sorrow was full-blown, as though it had grown over the years into something monstrous and fantastic” (p. 224). What does that make you think about Robert Buffum?