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From Russia to the Wild West - an Editorial Review of "To Be Free: the Life and Times of Nate Luck"

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Editorial Review:

To be Free is a biographical novel about Nate Luck, a Russian of Mongolian descent who immigrated to the United States in the 19th century. Luck’s Russian name was Anatoly Mikhailovich Lukyanov. The novel begins with his childhood in Russia, follows him through his journey across the Pacific, his time as a cowhand and Civil War soldier, his joining Native American tribes, and a legal officer. It opens with an editor’s note, which states one of the book’s most interesting features. Lloyd Mullins, the author, explains that he discovered Lukyanov/Luck’s unpublished memoir manuscript within a trunk his friend purchased. Mr. Mullins then says that he left most of the memoir intact, primarily editing the language common in the 19th century but offensive in the 21st. Other clues imply a modern hand had a larger role in shaping this novel. It contains direct, post-Hemingway prose that would have been uncommon for a writer in the 1890s. It also has an extensive bibliography of sources at the back, and most of all, contains modern conceptions about marginalized communities. For example, here is a quote from Esme, one of Luck’s primary love interests, about relying on men:

There’s not a woman in this world that’s safe, and a woman who counts on a man to make her feel safe is a fool. Besides, anything I can’t handle with this, Samson’ll take care of.”

Samson was Esme’s pimp/club owner. Similarly, here’s a quote from a Native American chief justifying his people’s actions against white American encroachment:

Enough!” Wolf Chief who interrupted, “You call us savages! We fight yes, to protect what is ours! Who wouldn’t? But you ve’ho’e who come here to take everything and leave us nothing — you call yourselves civilized! You bring nothing but disease and death and destruction, and all in the name of your Jesus Christ.

I was there,” he continued, “when your soldier chief Eayre attacked our village at Ash Creek. Lean Bear rode out to greet them with your president’s paper in his hand, your president’s medal on his chest. ‘Don’t be afraid!’ he told us, ‘The soldiers are our friends.’ The soldiers shot him down and kept shooting his body as they rode over it.”

All of these elements lead To be Free to read like a modern composition. If the Editor’s Note is accurate, and the document was minimally edited, Mr. Mullens made a remarkable find, and readers of biographical fiction have an exciting new entry into the genre. Like some other biographical novels, To Be Free acts as a fictional memoir. Unlike some of those contemporaries, (such as Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian) it reads more like a first-person novel than a memoir. The novel is largely dialogue-driven, much of it excellently written, and each character possesses a unique voice.

The novel’s main theme is finding a place in American society as an outsider. Lukyanov flees Russia under the threat of violence and holds an idealistic view of the US, largely due to his Enlightenment-infused father. He quickly learns that his Asian features result in discrimination from his new countrymen, his first step toward cynicism. His Enlightenment views lead him to critique America’s hypocrisy on slavery, including this interesting exchange about American slavery and Russian serfdom:

Dave sat deep in thought for a while and then said, “You Russians sure done us one better.”

What do you mean?”

Well here at least, a slave’s free when he dies. You boys have figured out how to keep him in chains and make money off him even when he’s dead.”

Much of the plot also deals with US-Native relations, which contributes to Lukyanov/Luck’s disenchantment with his adopted country. He lives among them multiple times, once infiltrating a tribe as part of an Army assignment and once joining from genuine choice. Each time culminates in witnessing the Army’s brutality toward Natives. Luck’s outsider perspective allows him to see 19th-century America more objectively than its natural-born citizens. By the novel’s end, he views much of American society as a corrupt sham, and no longer blames his enemies for their behavior, but society’s incentives. The end result is a tragedy of sorts. This means that To be Free shares themes with two of America’s greatest artistic works, The Godfather and The Great Gatsby. The first implied that assimilating into mainstream American society was impossible, the second made a similar statement about fulfilling the American dream. Luck’s commentary fits along similar lines.

Most stories prioritize either their plot or their characters. Biographical fiction generally falls into the latter camp, with much of the genre serving as character studies for their respective subjects. To Be Free does an unusually good job at balancing both. Its adventurous plot of voyage, cowboys, wars, Native Americans, love, rivalry, and corruption will keep most readers hooked through what is admittedly a long narrative. But Lake discusses his view of himself and the world, building a compelling psychological portrait. He discusses his support for the Enlightenment, his love of novels, his skills at language and in horseback riding, and his thoughts on Manifest Destiny, on killing during war, and on what makes a good life. Each chapter opens with a fragment about its theme, which is a nice touch and gives additional insight into Lake’s mind and beliefs. One of this reviewer’s favorite quotes was the following:

It was funny, but then I thought about “Blessed are the peacemakers.” In my experience, all too often, the peacemakers pay the price for all of us. Look at Jesus. Or Black Kettle. The world would be a whole lot better off if we’d listen to men like them rather than kill them because they’re inconvenient.

Side characters, such as Esme, a love interest, and Bill Morrow, Luck’s rival, also receive thoughtful character analysis that produces important character arcs. The romantic and conflict-driven plot lines help ensure a well-rounded narrative that will appeal to most readers.

In conclusion, To Be Free balances the different aspects of storytelling better than most novels. It contains an exciting plot and thoughtful characters, good dialogue and descriptions, conflict and romance, social commentary that is forward-looking and doesn’t overwhelm the narrative, and even functions as both a biographical novel and a memoir. It is highly recommended for fans of creative nonfiction (biographical fiction) and westerns.


“To Be Free” by Lloyd Mullins receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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Jean 816-776-5945

Replying to

Right now, I'm trying to find a publisher (an unexpectedly lengthy process!). I'm hoping that this review will help. I am really grateful for your interest and, once I find a publisher, I'll bet spreading the word as far and wide as I can (you may even hear me screaming it from my rooftop!). Again thank you so much for your interest! It is really heartening, which is awesome, especially since the search for a publisher can be really dispiriting. Take care, and thanks again!


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