I just finished reading the best book I have read in a long time, maybe one of the best I’ve ever read. Clair Huffaker is the author of the 1973 novel “The Cowboy and the Cossack.”
The novel has all the makings of a traditional Western. It takes place in the 1880s, there are 15 cowboys and they have to move a herd of more than 500 cattle through 1,000 miles of hostile territory. Where it begins to veer from the familiar is that the 1,000 miles are in Russia (following a long sail from Seattle to Vladivostok and an amazing ocean cattle landing), they are escorted by 15 Cossack warriors and their enemy —in addition, initially, to the Cossacks —are 500-plus Tartar warriors instead of the usual Indians.
The story is great, there is plenty of action for those who place a high value on it, some fist and gunfights and, as the tension builds, it’s hard not to keep reading way past bedtime. It is very much a “one more chapter” book.
Outside of the non-traditional setting, three things set “Cossack” apart from most, if not all, Westerns. First, Huffaker perfectly establishes the differences between the cowboys and the Cossacks and then spend the balance of the book showing us that there really are no differences, at least any that matter. Second, it is one of the great “coming of age” books as we follow the story through the eyes and words of young Levi Dougherty. And last, the language. Huffaker is an expert at building tension over a couple of pages, leading to a sometimes predictable fight, or over tens — even a couple of hundred pages — leaving this reader anxious to learn what happens. There are phrases, sentences and paragraphs that are so brilliant, so moving, that you’ll find yourself going back and reading them over and over.
The book creates a conundrum, but a great one. I found myself wanting to race through the book, to see what happens, to see how the story turns out. At the same time, I wanted to savor each page, knowing that every time I turned a page, it’s the last time I’ll have read it for the first time.
Simply put, “The Cowboy and the Cossack” receives my highest rating – 4 horseshoes.