Laura Pedersen,
Buffalo Unbound: A Celebration
(Fulcrum, 2010)

Buffalo-area native Laura Pedersen took it personally when Forbes magazine listed her hometown among America's "Ten Most Miserable Cities" in its February 2009 issue. She was moved enough to pen this book-length treatise as counter argument. Unlike in her previous memoir, Buffalo Gal, the author includes only a handful of personal stories here. Her chapters instead focus on the landmarks, events and people of Buffalo renown that are worthy of close attention, if not outright admiration.

Included is a brief demographic look at the residents, from the original Native Americans to the subsequent overwhelming Catholic presence. A few instances of Mafia control show up. We read about Father Nelson Henry Baker and about Elbert Hubbard and his Roycroft movement. We visit Grand Island, Niagara Falls, the Erie Canal, Forest Lawn Cemetery, the New York Thruway and a fair number of theaters, galleries, museums, churches and sports facilities. Frank Lloyd Wright's influence on local architecture is analyzed. And we see how life in Buffalo was affected by an 1867 train wreck, a 1954 school fire, a 2009 plane crash and of course, various snowstorms and blizzards over the course of the centuries.

Any one of those topics deserves its own detailed volume of history. (And many have resulted in just that.) Since Pedersen covers so much historic and geographic territory (expanding well beyond the Buffalo city limits), she is relegated to giving overviews and glossing over the intricacies of her subject matter. Hers is a casual and colloquial approach to the region. She provides tales and information that tourists would welcome, but not in traditional guidebook format. No photographs or maps accompany her insights. Anyone familiar with the city will nod and recognize most of the contents. For some, the narrative will offer a walk down memory lane. Others who have a more superficial relationship with the area may be frustrated by the lack of illustrations, source credits, index or recommended reading list. Then again, this book is meant to be a homage and not a true history or a promotional piece.

Oddly enough -- and perhaps because of the author's roots in Unitarianism -- the text makes several references to Henry Thoreau, even though he held no tie at all to the city of Buffalo. (Thoreau did spend five days at nearby Niagara Falls in 1861, but since his visit wasn't publicized and still isn't common knowledge, Pedersen doesn't mention it.) The author concludes her final chapter by perpetuating a number of stereotypical and false myths about the Transcendentalist, seemingly making a connection only because the public library system owns a first edition of Walden. She would have been better off finding another method of wrapping up her writing.

Still, Buffalo Unbound makes for good general reading about Buffalo and western New York. It's a quick and entertaining read that is designed to be devoured from cover to cover. No matter whether you are a Buffalo resident, a fan, a tourist or a newcomer, you are apt to pick up a few interesting tidbits from among these pages.

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

11 June 2011

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