Cossacks were members of several peasant groups of Russian and Polish descent. They lived in autonomous communal settlements, especially in the Ukraine, until the early 20th century. In return for special privileges, they served in the cavalry under the czars. They were well known for their horsemanship. They raided villages for supplies, women and young men to increase or replenish their ranks. Eventually they became a part of the Russian army.
Nathan Hertzfield is a young Russian boy living with his widowed mother and younger brother. During the night a band of Cossacks raid his village. Many are killed while their houses are pillaged and burned. Nathan is kidnapped by one of the Cossacks, a man named Nikolai, and taken back to their camp. At first their relationship is somewhat turbulent.
“You're obstinate, little man. You'll make a fine Cossack.”
Nikolai said, “I've questions for you. You were born in the village of Gagra, no?”
“Good. You're Russian by birth.”
“And you're a Christian?”
“A Christian? No.”
“I'm a Jew,” said Nathan proudly.
“A Jew, you say. You won't be when we return to camp.”
“How can that be? I was born a Jew. How can I not be a Jew?”
“The fact you're a Jew doesn't matter to me. You're young, healthy, and trainable. This is all that matters. You're going to need a new name. What is your name?”
“Nathan, Nathan Hertzfield.”
“Your name will no longer be Nathan Hertzfield. You're Stepan Ivanov now.”
The rest of the story is an exciting adventure where Nathan, now Stepan, becomes like a son to Nikolai. For many years they live together and become very close as they live the gypsy yet war like life of the Cossacks. As a lover of Russian literature I found the descriptions of the culture of the Cossacks informative and very interesting.
Stepan soon comes to understand why Nikolai wanted to hide his Jewish identity. It is 1904 in Russia and the Jewish pograms are underway. Eventually it becomes so dangerous that Stepan can no longer stay with the Cossacks or in Russia.
Living and running and fighting with the Cossacks is only one chapter of Stepan's life. War, political upheaval and danger from another Cossack boy who tries to pin a crime on him takes him across Europe in what is a kind of “Jewish underground railroad” where he meets many other Jews who are trying to make it to freedom and safe from persecution. Having to change his name more than once he finally makes it to America.
Thomas Blubaugh wrote this story about his grandfather who immigrated to America from Russia. He never met him or learned much about him so Blubaugh decided to make up his own story about his grandfather's life.
This book is an excellent coming of age story that would be wonderful for adolescent boys (and girls- I always read 'male' literature as a kid.) It is also a source of good historical fiction as it accurately portrays living conditions in turn of the century Russia, the plight of the Jewish people and how many of them came to America, via Europe.
Blubaugh's writing style is seamless and fluid. His characters are believable and interesting. On top of that it has a great story line. All the ingredients of a great book. It was easy and fun to read. I read it in a couple of days. I recommend this book to everyone.
Here is the latest link to the book on Amazon.
I received a free copy of this book by the author. For more information you can go to Thomas Blubaugh's website:
For another review of this book you can visit the blog Reflections in Hindsight here