'Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo' examines what it means to belong

The follow-up to Fishman's critically-acclaimed 'A Replacement Life' offers a compelling portrait of one woman's search for her own identity.

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo By Boris Fishman Harper 336 pp.

Readers who appreciate strong female characters will find themselves enjoying, and perhaps even relating to, this story of a mother who will go to any length to find the real reason her son was given up for adoption by his birth parents. Along the way, she also finds herself.

Boris Fishman’s greatest strength is in creating a believable female main character. Much like Nora Webster in the Colm Tóibín novel of the same name, Maya Rubin (née Shulman), is complex: lovable in one instance, and infuriating in the next.

Maya also has believably feminine concerns, motherhood and pregnancy being chief among them. When she is unable to become pregnant, she and her husband, Alex, adopt a young boy named Max. Max’s birth mother, Laurel, leaves him behind, with the cryptic request that forms the book’s title: Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo.

Maya loves Max all the more fiercely because he is not her own child. She apologizes to him in conversation and goes to great lengths to make sure he is both heard and understood. But despite the fact that she has an adopted child, she longs to become pregnant and have a biological child of her own.

Even though Maya is unable to become pregnant and watch her body change the same way that other women’s bodies do during pregnancy, the book documents how she, and her body, are changed by a different set of circumstances: the journey that she, her husband, and small son take to locate and get to know Max’s birth parents.    

Fishman describes that journey in tightly packed language. The title of the book invites the comparison to country music, but it never dips into heavy melancholy, only swaying lightly on the edges of that feeling.   

Even so, some parts of "Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo" feel more fully developed than others. The book’s middle section, where the family spends a good deal of time at Badlands National Park, drags. Much like Maya herself, there are moments where the book feels as though it is doubting its own course. The book’s plotting begins to right itself towards the final third, quickening with a lively, steady pace, like a highway hurtling toward its destination.

Maya also grows stronger as a character as the book progresses. She has taken the courageous step of driving with her family away from the one thing that they know (New Jersey) towards the unknown (the American West and Montana) and it is through this process that her interior emptiness is slowly filled.       

“Sometimes, I think it isn’t an actual place, Montana. It exists, but not in the way other places exist.” Maya says on page 242. She has traveled far from New Jersey, the place where her identity and home are located, towards a place that holds a mystical sense of foreignness to people who live on the coasts.

Little is made of what her husband or son think of the journey. The focus is entirely on Maya throughout Fishman’s narrative, both when she triumphs and when she makes very difficult mistakes.

We have a few suggestions, early on, of the depth of the connection that she has to Alex. Fishman writes that, “As in all such stories, Alex and Maya almost did not meet,” which suggests that there is a significance to the fact that they have been drawn together.

At first their connection is awkward, and then passionate. He provides a balance for her, and a place for her to grow: his family adopts her and creates a place for her among them. This sets the stage for the adoption process that she later undertakes to obtain a child. Having been welcomed by one family, it is now natural for her to welcome a new member to hers.  

About Alex, Maya thinks, “You grow where there is not supposed to be growth. You survive there.” This not only describes his quiet strength, but speaks to the book’s larger themes. "Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo" repeatedly stresses the importance of personal growth even during difficult times.

Alex’s presence as a character begins to wane after Max is adopted and Maya insists on taking the drive to Montana. This is unfortunate, since it would be interesting to explore the dynamics of their marriage if there was an equal balance between them. But perhaps there is a larger point in this omission, as if, by the fact that Alex is not present, it suggests that there is even more at stake than just Max’s origins.

Readers will be glad that they made the journey with Maya Rubin as she searches the American West in an attempt to find herself. ‘"Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo" is a wonderful and quiet look at the eternal question of what it means to belong.

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