“Don’t let my baby do rodeo,” are the last words Maya Rubin hears from the Montana-bred birth mother before she zooms off into the dark New Jersey night with the baby’s father, a man who rides bulls for a living. The baby is left in the care of Maya and her husband Alex, as well as Alex’s parents. All — like the author, Boris Fishman — are immigrants from Russia.
Even as the Rubin family flourishes in their adopted country, the land they left behind infuses their lives. Maya, who as a student had dreams of opening a Russian-themed café, now works as a medical assistant, her ideals lost in suburbia. Still, when she stews carrots and honey into tsimmes, she brings homesick tears to the eyes of the people who feast at her table. Alex has also ended up with a life he never wanted, working in his father’s import business, which has tentacles stretching back to the old country.
When young Max begins acting strangely, eating grass and diving into icy streams, sleeping in a tent in the back yard and assembling a collection of wild grasses, Maya suspects a piece of his soul still resides in his snowy birthplace, too. After a few stabs at resolution in New Jersey — one visit to a fortune teller, another to a psychologist — the family seeks redemption on a road trip to Montana.
The book is told in the third person, closest to Maya’s perspective. Maya’s thoughts stew and boil, much like the food she once delighted in cooking; they are peppered with unresolved questions and salted with unsolved quandaries. Maya and Alex seem unsuited to each other but never talk about it. Alex’s overbearing parents are left behind in New Jersey, but never to grow in their relationship to their children. Even Max, the center of everyone’s world, remains anonymous. Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is a deep dive into the psyche of displaced and lonely souls. There is beauty in the cold of loneliness, and readers will appreciate this book for its unapologetic chill.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.