Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Boris Fishman: Book Review

A runaway’s quest for home.

dont let my baby do rodeo boris fishman book review
Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo Book Cover Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo
Boris Fishman
Fiction
Harper Perennial
2016
Paperback
321

The author of the critically admired, award-winning A Replacement Life turns to a different kind of story—an evocative, nuanced portrait of marriage and family, a woman reckoning with what she’s given up to make both work, and the universal question of how we reconcile who we are and whom the world wants us to be.

Maya Shulman and Alex Rubin met in 1992, when she was a Ukrainian exchange student with “a devil in [her] head” about becoming a chef instead of a medical worker, and he the coddled son of Russian immigrants wanting to toe the water of a less predictable life.

Twenty years later, Maya Rubin is a medical worker in suburban New Jersey, and Alex his father’s second in the family business. The great dislocation of their lives is their eight-year-old son Max—adopted from two teenagers in Montana despite Alex’s view that “adopted children are second-class.”

At once a salvation and a mystery to his parents—with whom Max’s biological mother left the child with the cryptic exhortation “don’t let my baby do rodeo”—Max suddenly turns feral, consorting with wild animals, eating grass, and running away to sit face down in a river.

Searching for answers, Maya convinces Alex to embark on a cross-country trip to Montana to track down Max’s birth parents—the first drive west of New Jersey of their American lives. But it’s Maya who’s illuminated by the journey, her own erstwhile wildness summoned for a reckoning by the unsparing landscape, with seismic consequences for herself and her family.

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is a novel about the mystery of inheritance and what exactly it means to belong.

This review includes spoilers and quotes from the book

I know what you’re thinking, What would drive a person to choose a book with the title Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo? I’ll tell you why. Boris Fishman‘s latest novel tells of Maya and Alex’s frightful discovery when they realize their newly-adopted child is not who he appears to be. We learn this immediately from the book’s inception, when their son, Max, runs away in the first chapter, leaving Maya and Alex to figure out just why their 8-year-old son would take a bus to New York City and beyond.

One of the devices Fishman uses to push the plot forward in this story is alternating time periods through both Maya and Alex’s perspectives. I thought this was really powerful on the author’s part because it builds some backstory to both of these characters, who they are and so forth. From this, readers are able to see how this couple met and fell in love. As sounds cheesy as it might sound, it really does help unravel what’s meant to be Alex and Maya’s “true relationship.”

“Diabolical because now how will Maya know whether she said yes to the man or the country?”  

In the beginning, we learn that Maya is originally from the USSR and that she’s studying in the U.S. on a visa. Alex and his parents, on the other hand, moved to the States when he was younger and has always considered the nation his home. They celebrate their cultures differently but they share similar beliefs; it’s something I think makes this novel so special: Fishman’s ability to describe these cultures with such ease.

Maya’s passion lies in cooking, which is what led to Maya’s meeting Alex in the first place. She started dating one of his friends, but when he notices her cooking one day, Alex gets a feeling that he has to know her. However, there’s a struggle; Alex and his parents feel as if they have to prove themselves to Maya because they think differently than her. Having resided in the States longer, they feel as though the U.S. is more home to them than the USSR, while Maya thinks the opposite.

In a way, there’s somewhat of a culture clash between the two, and it ends up becoming a central theme in the book. This is noticed in a few scenes when Maya and Alex’s differences become more apparent, especially in the way of child-rearing.

For instance, Maya and Alex adopted Max from a teenage couple in Montana, but Maya always worries whether she’s raising Max the right way. She wanted to make sure he was treated like her own son as if there are no differences between them. Together, Maya and Max bond by cooking together. She shows him what types of food she used to eat in the USSR but she’s also mindful of Max staying true to who he is. But Alex would rather change him to be more “normal-fitting.” Maya knows the ends and outs of Max better than her husband because he is everything to her.

Another struggle witnessed in this circle is Alex’s difficulty of seeing Max as a first-class citizen. He would have liked to have children of his own, considering his parents gave him so much trouble with adopting Max in the first place. Seeing the dynamics in Alex’s relationship with his parents is interesting because they think out loud. Alex’s parents question Max’s sanity while Alex keeps his doubts concealed. However, Maya’s only concern is for the safe return of her son. This constant tug of war between Max and Alex is constant throughout the entire book; and as the story progresses, their relationship gets more complicated.

Perhaps these little bouts are due to the fact that they fell in love without really getting to know one another. To be honest, they never really have a formal introduction, and their acquaintance is made only by happenstance after meeting through Alex’s friend, whom Maya dated. Although she does find Alex attractive, she never dared to make a move on him.

Several months later, though, Alex finally confessed his feelings for Maya but warns that her visa was expiring. In a moment of impulse and panic, Alex does the unthinkable: he asked her to marry him. Though Maya was unsure whether it was Alex or the country she loved. It’s a thought that continues to haunt Alex throughout their relationship, but of course, you’ll have to read the book itself to learn if their love is strong enough to survive.

What I liked about Fishman’s writing is how he switches narrators with such ease. You get inside the minds of different people, sometimes within the same paragraph. It takes a special kind of talent to be able to capture so many characters at once. In the first chapter, Fishman has Alex, Maya, and Alex’s parents all giving their private thoughts on what they think about this one peculiar child who’s run away. And yet, he’s still able to intertwine those thoughts so perfectly.

I recommend this novel to anyone who is looking for something out of their comfort zone. I don’t give out 5-star ratings often, but I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough with this one. Pick this book up ASAP. You won’t regret it.

Written by Jessica Duffield

I am a sophomore in college. Books are my passion and I hope to work in book publishing once I graduate.