I wish I liked this book more.
It’s a Nancy Pearl recommendation. Ms. Pearl, who works for the Seattle Public Library, is a champion of books, all books. She is an unapologetic genre fan, someone who reads everything and seems to love everything she reads. When she appears on NPR to talk about a book or writes about something she’s read you can’t help but want to go out and read it. I can’t, at least.
Clair Huffaker’s The Cowboy and the Cossack is part of her Book Lust Rediscoveries Series. It’s a book she loves so much she put her name on the cover in the hopes of winning it new editions and a wide readership.
I liked parts of The Cowboy and the Cossack quite a bit, largely the beginning and the ending scenes. The novel opens with a group of Montana cowboys arriving off the coast of Siberia with 500 head of longhorns to deliver to a Russian aristocrat who is starting his own herd. Because they cannot get past the paperwork and the paper-pusher that would allow them to disembark properly, they sail south of town under cover of darkness and push the cattle into the sea so they can swim for shore which is technically legal.
It’s a terrific scene. One I wish John Ford was still alive to film. It would be great.
It’s no coincidence that Mr. Huffaker was a successful screenwriter. The Cowboy and the Cossack may take place in Siberia, but it follows the classic movie-western plot. The story is told by a young man, an orphan who was raised by the head cowboy, Shad. Though the two have a bond tighter than any father and son I’ve ever known, it’s not something they ever discuss. Once they are in Siberia they are met by a group of Cossacks who have arrived to take the cattle to their new home, many weeks away. The leader of the Cossacks sees the narrator’s potential and insists he join him as he scouts the way across the tundra.
I imagine, if you’ve seen all the John Wayne westerns like I have, you can fill in the overall plot from there. The two main adults become rivals, of a sorts, for the young narrator who spends the novel trying to determine which example of manhood is the one he should follow. Think Red River, or Fort Apache or True Grit for that matter. The other cowboys include a wide assortment of men, two former slaves, one Mexican, a former Confederate, a would-be poet, etc. There’s a similar variety with the Cossacks. While there are several good scenes in the mid section of the book, and there are plenty of moments when Mr. Huffaker makes good use of the conflicts between east and west, things didn’t really pick up for me again until the end when the herd runs up against a group of Tartars.
That was one fine fight.
So in the end, my recommendation for The Cowboy and the Cossack is still a good one, but not as good as I hoped. Three, maybe four our of five stars….
…under a lonesome sky…..