REVIEW BY DIANE DONOVAN, MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW
Charles Ota Heller heard these words of hate in high school … in the land of the free, after he and his parents narrowly escaped the brutal Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. It was an endeavor that moved them from living a life of wealth to arriving in a strange new land nearly penniless. They were words that would plague his life and seem to thwart any ideal of success. And yet, he persisted.
Charged by his father with adapting to his new home by speaking English without an accent and becoming “100% American,” Heller struggled with his past and present prejudice to achieve success against all odds and under any definition of the word.
Cowboy from Prague: An Immigrant’s Pursuit of the American Dream records that process. It adds to the literature about immigrant experience and contributions to American history and culture by offering both familiar examples of struggle and prejudice and extraordinary efforts that link perseverance to the ultimate American dream of achievement and success for all.
In many ways, Cowboy from Prague documents concepts, ideals, and processes similar to the wealth of immigrant experience already in print. In others, it represents a departure, in its focus on different types of prejudice and how they affected the narrator’s perceptions of life in the land of opportunity.
These passages are marked by specific examples and memories: “The football coach looked at me, turned back to Smith and launched a wad of saliva onto the green grass.
“This is pure bullshit!” he snarled. “Only goddamn immigrant freaks kick the ball from the side. This is America, and that’s not football.” With that, he walked off in the direction of his office. I felt as if the squat little man had kicked me in the groin as hard as I had kicked the football. I stared at Smith quizzically in search of an explanation. Cap was watching the football coach wobble up the hill toward the school building. Finally, he turned to me, and I could see that his eyes were moist. “I’m sorry, Charlie. Apparently, Coach Flynn is not very fond of immigrants. I’m afraid you’re going to meet a few people like him in your life.”
The strength of such examples (and in this narrative) lies in “what happened next,” because Heller is the perfect example of gaining wisdom, strength, and positive pathways from adversity.
Cowboy from Prague is full of such examples as it documents how this immigrant changes not only his history, but those around him, by his attitudes and drive.
Unexpected humor is one thread that keeps Heller’s story engrossing. It appears at points where one would least expect it, demonstrating the versatility of thought and approaches to life that would serve him well in America.
As readers pursue Heller’s story, they will come to realize that his book represents more than a singular life or experience. It’s the voice of a nation with a history of taking in those less fortunate and providing avenues of success unavailable in any other country, and it follows the successes and failures of America’s own dreams and promises.
In the end, it reinforces those very American principles that draw immigrants in the first place: “I wrote Cowboy from Prague in support of enlightened Americans—those who not only understand the economic benefits of immigration, but who believe that taking in human beings in distress is what this country has always done—whose voices will drown out the insults and bravado of the haters. That is the America about which I dreamed as a 12-year-old in a refugee camp. That is the nation which allowed me to pursue, and realize, the American Dream. That is the America about which I decided to write.”
While libraries strong in immigrant stories will want to consider Cowboy from Prague, it’s also a powerful analysis of the qualities that make America accessible, the ideals of it being the land of opportunity for all, and the types of people that either represent or belay this ideal by their attitudes and actions towards immigrants.
Heller’s story will ideally be pursued in discussion groups not just devoted to memoirs of immigrant experiences, but surveys of the American dream and how it is translated in real life.
Cowboy from Prague
Charles Ota Heller