Book Review: Buffalo Steel (Lizz Schumer)

Reviewed by Maya Northen

The story is a well-known one. Buffalo, New York, once renowned for its steel industry, is crashing down. Its residents struggle to find jobs to keep their families afloat. The city, along with those who have stayed, suffers an identity crisis. For the older generations, faith is both despaired of, and clung to as the only hope for getting out of the depression, both economical and personal. Younger generations flee the city in waves, or dream of doing so.

This is the backdrop for Lizz Schumer's Buffalo Steel (Black Rose Press, 2013). The story is told from the perspective of Mary Catherine, a young woman whose family is deeply rooted in the city, and who is so fiercely determined to reject it's influence that she turns the rejection inward on herself. As the reader, we explore, through Mary Catherine's perspective, an honest look at the city she calls home, the way that it shapes her as she tries to escape its grasps, and the no-nonsense truth of the disease that she battles as she struggles to find her own identity.

Anorexia is a unique beast. The outward effects slowly become apparent to even the most unaware observer – shoulder blades that could seemingly pierce the skin, hollowed out eyes, a palpable weakness. It can be easily conceived that the signs and symptoms are obvious. Yet with all of these visible indications, the condition is highly misunderstood. To those who are unfamiliar with the disease, it often appears as an overzealous diet plan. From the outsider's perspective, those who battle it may be thought of as vain and superficial, always striving to be that much skinnier. Yet those who experience the condition know otherwise. In following Mary Catherine's journey with the disease, we see how it creeps into her brain, disguising itself as a challenge of willpower, a way for her to separate herself from everything she hopes to escape. As it burrows deeper, it becomes denial and self-alienation, a vicious circle in which the increase in physical and psychological symptoms only feeds the feeling of overcoming a challenge. For Mary Catherine, the only way to break this cycle is the realization that, in fact, in a horrendous twist of the rules, this very "challenge of willpower" has resulted in a spiraling out of control, both the physically and mentally.

Mary Catherine's desire to shed the identity of her upbringing and discover a new one leads her to flee from one place to another in search of something she admits that she can't fully name. At college she hopes to be able to shed the familiar skin of her home city. In a more drastic step, she heads overseas on several occasions, each time with the hopes of a fresh start. She has linked her identity so closely to her surroundings that she believes it's just a matter of finding the right place–as if in the right external environment, she will suddenly comprehend pieces of herself that constantly elude her.

As she finally begins to understand her illness and the thoughts and feelings surrounding it, Mary Catherine searches for the words to describe her battle. Responding to her father asking if she's hungry, she explains to the reader,

Desperately, I wanted to tell him. I was hungry for the person I had been when I was a child and life was as simple as a bowl of cereal for breakfast and whatever mom packed for lunch and put on the table for dinner. I was hungry for the sense of belonging that seemed to come so easily to everyone else…I was so hungry for so many things that I didn't know where to begin.

As Mary Catherine battles her body and mind, she also fights against another critical aspect of her life – her faith. Like most in Buffalo at the time, Roman Catholicism was the backbone of her upbringing; a central component to the way one lived the rest of their life. In fact, we find quotes from Bible passages throughout the book, intertwined into our lead character's thoughts, sometimes guiding and comforting her, other times cautioning her. For Mary Catherine, a question emerges - one which it takes her a while to recognize aloud: if she finds faith, will she start to heal internally? Or, if she starts to heal internally, will she be able to finally find her faith? Like the anorexia itself, it's a constant back and forth, pulling her in one direction, then thrusting her in another. Intrinsic to her search for faith and identity is her need for peace of mind. She describes:

I spent my days searching for the high I saw on the faces of my classmates, when they walked to class beneath Georgian arches, drank cheap wine on the velvet grass quad or devoured artisanal ice cream at the stand across the street. I wanted the peace that registered on the faces of the old ladies at church who gazed at the crucifix like they had finally come home.

Despite this seemingly poetic search for peace, faith, and self, what draws readers into Buffalo Steel is Schumer's raw description, and the candid telling of Mary Catherine's life. There's no sugar-coating in the language or depictions. She doesn't try to romanticize the disease, nor the protagonist. While there's plenty to sympathize (or perhaps even identify) with in Mary Catherine's story, there are plenty of times when you think, "what the heck is she thinking? Why would she do that?" It's easy for authors to try to portray someone as heroic because they deal with a disability or illness, and yet the majority of people with a disability or illness don't want to be portrayed that way. They don't want to be separated out, made an example of, just for living their life with the body and mind that they have. Schumer steers clear of this. Mary Catherine struggles with not only her body image and her disordered eating, but her relationships, her faith, and her constant resistance to shed the city that seems to grip its residents, pulling them back home no matter how far they try to run. For those who knew nothing of her illness, she'd probably appear (physical signs of weight loss notwithstanding) to be the average, somewhat rebellious teenager trying to get out of a city that's quickly collapsing and dragging its residents down with it. She'd look like a young kid with big dreams of "going somewhere" who has the average struggles with understanding friends and life and God along the way. It's only because we see it from her perspective and are privy to her innermost thoughts that we understand the extent of the disease and the role that it plays in the acceptance of herself, her faith, and the place from which she's come.


Maya Northen authors Lilies and Elephants, a blog about life with a mood disorder, and leads a mental health support group on Facebook. Her articles have been featured on and Partners for Mental Health, among other mental-health-focused sites. Northen is also the owner of Chimera Travel, a travel planning company that creates customized itineraries for individuals and groups. In spring she will be hosting an eco-poetry retreat in Costa Rica with poet Hila Ratzabi. Northen has a B.S. in Kineseology from Indiana University and an M.S. in International arketing from St. Joseph's University.