Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo

By – February 22, 2016

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.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Boris Fishman

    • It may seem like an obvi­ous ques­tion (so that means it’s a trick ques­tion!), but whom or what is this nov­el about?

    • Dis­cuss how the var­i­ous Rubin adults see and regard Max. Do the same for how they see and regard Maya.

    • Was the female per­spec­tive con­vinc­ing­ly brought off by the author? Com­pare with oth­er books by male writ­ers (or male Jew­ish writ­ers, if you’d like) in which women fig­ure prominently.

    • Is Alex a schmuck or a qui­et hero?

    • What explains the Rubins’ prej­u­dice and lack of infor­ma­tion toward and about this very dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try? Does it have to do with the kind of immi­grants they are, or is it emblem­at­ic of a more gen­er­al divide between parts of America?

    • Do you see Maya’s efforts at self-dis­cov­ery as hero­ic or self-indulgent?

    • Dis­cuss the emo­tions you felt at dif­fer­ent stages of the nov­el: Frus­tra­tion? Poignan­cy? Dread?

    • Dis­cuss the role of the unknown — you may see it as the unnat­ur­al, or the super-nat­ur­al — in the nov­el: Max’s behav­ior, Madame Stel­la, or, more broad­ly, the way we nev­er real­ly come to know what exact­ly is respon­si­ble for some of what makes us who we are.

    • Are Max’s mis­be­hav­iors” poten­tial evi­dence of a gen­uine dis­tur­bance or him just being an ordi­nary Amer­i­can kid? Might Max’s dis­ap­pear­ances and engage­ments with nature be less trou­ble­some for a non-Jew­ish family?

    • Dis­cuss the way adop­tion is por­trayed in the nov­el, and whether it res­onates with your own expe­ri­ences or under­stand­ing of it.

    • For those famil­iar with the author’s first nov­el, how much of a depar­ture is this one? Is this a Jew­ish” nov­el? If so, in what ways?

    • Dis­cuss the role of land­scape in the novel.