I was a horse crazy 8 year old when my father’s novel The Cowboy and the Cossack was first published. My father had always been slightly bigger than life to me, not unlike the characters in his books, with his ever present cowboy boots and Stetson, sky blue eyes and warm smile and even as a very young girl I knew it was a profound honor to have my name right there in the dedication of his novel. To be referred to as a “Cossack in Los Angeles” seemed like a wildly romantic notion to me and it appealed both to my love of horseback riding, and an adventurous spirit that my Dad all too correctly prophesied. I read the book for the first time before it had even been published, the week he gave me his original watermarked manuscript, and I have continued to reread it every few years since then. Each time the book speaks to me in different ways, and seems to frame the different chapters of my life with his passion, philosophy and spirit. I remember crying the first time I read about Igor tying that silver bell around his horse’s neck, and I feel pretty sure I have cried at that moment each time since, thinking about my own horses and the spiritual bond we share. And the sequence with the cattle coming off the ship when the cowboys arrive in Russia remains one of the great openings of a book ever, and the dream of every stuntman I have known in Hollywood for 20 years.
But over the years, a novel that was a grand exciting adventure as a young girl and teenager had transformed as I became a young adult and I began to see it as a profound allegory about the commonality of all men. How our shared humanity transcends both borders and cultures, language and ethnicity. Without proselytizing, my father was able to entertain people, and tell an epic tale while the underlying subtext spoke of true men judging one another not by their cultural or racial differences but by the content of their characters.
Clair died decades too soon at the age of 63 when I was 25 years old. The poem that Old Keats writes for Lt. Bruk are the words I chose to put on his epitaph. Again after his death, I found myself picking up Cowboy to reconnect with him and perhaps look for answers. Carl Sagan wrote that books “Break the shackles of time… proof that humans can work magic.” And in those months and years after Clair passed, his magic was in full force. I could hear his voice speaking to me as I read his words. In a way he wasn’t gone at all, but right there with me, sitting by the fire with his Great Dane, or under the oak tree he planted in the yard, and his passages both about death and living life to the fullest stood out as they never had before. The notion that if you leave an strong imprint on those you love and cherish, perhaps you never really die but are carried on in the memories and hearts of those you have touched along the way.
As the years went by and I stumbled into middle age, my father’s ability to touch people and live on through his words and characters was again opened up to me in a dramatic and unexpected way. The far reaching hands of a little gizmo called the internet allowed me to search articles, and read personal reviews and thoughts on Clair’s work which I might never otherwise have been aware of. When I was young, dad kept a few treasured file boxes of yellowed letters he had received from readers and admirers of his work. Now I found myself reading reviews on Amazon and other sites from readers all over the world. Families in Russia who considered their page worn copy of The Cowboy and the Cossack a family treasure. A wife who read the book out loud to her husband when he was ill and bedridden. An American soldier who brought me to tears when I read about how Cowboy was his favorite novel, and very first thing that went into his backpack each time he left for duty. For over a decade he carried with him his ragged paperback copy of The Cowboy and the Cossack that he bought in a used book store to dozens of countries and it was read and reread until the pages were frayed and worn, and passed among his fellow soldiers for strength and inspiration .
My publisher at Amazon suggested perhaps I talk in this blog about what it means to me to have my father’s book republished after all these years. That’s a tough one. When you follow in footsteps as big as his, words seem almost destined for failure. It is almost impossible for me to begin to convey not only what it means to me, but infinitely more importantly what it would mean to him, to have his words, his story and his characters reborn to a new generation of readers. It is a profound honor for me to be able to continue my father’s legacy by inviting new readers into an epic adventure tale which at its core illuminates the essential traits that my father believed a true man should steadfastly possess: honor, courage, integrity, and quiet strength. In our modern world where old fashioned values seem to somehow have been forgotten or misplaced, and strength of character and commitment to truth often feel like antiquated ideals from a bygone era, perhaps a novel which celebrates these things unabashed and without apology will find a new generation of readers.
When I was a girl, the door to my father’s house was never locked. It was a big two story colonial built in 1926 a half a block from the famous Sunset Strip. For decades that old house was a constant landmark and traveling stop for writers and directors, actors and stuntmen, and even cowboys. Everyone was welcome. If the pool table upstairs could talk it could tell wild tales of story telling and laughter, raconteurs and rapscallions, high stakes 8 ball, whiskey drinking, food and friends, music emanating from the juke box, and long nights around the poker table with cigarette smoke hanging thick in the air. Most of the men whose stories filed those rooms have passed on by now. Their memories live on in old western movies and picture books filled with black and white photos of Monument Valley landscapes, John Ford movies and the heyday of the Hollywood western. Sometimes it seems to me that God just broke that mold and it may not be found again. And yet, over the decades, my father’s spirit continues to live on in me and his readers through his writing.
His last book was a novel about his parents and the first lines read… “In the beginning, there was the earth. And then, there was music.” The echo of my father’s words in his books, remains to this day, the music of my life.
I hope they ring to you as well.