Blurb from Amazon:
‘Few gypsies want to be seen as poor, although many are. Such was the case with old Angelina’s sons, who possessed nothing other than their caravan and their gypsy blood. But it was young blood that coursed through their veins, a dark and vital flow that attracted women and fathered numberless children. And, like their mother, who had known the era of horses and caravans, they spat upon the very thought that they might be pitied.’ So begins the story of a tribe exiled to the outskirts of the city, outlawed and ostracized by society. Esther, a young librarian from the town, wants to teach Angelina’s grandchildren to read. She runs into a wall of suspicion but eventually manages to tame the children and gain Angelina’s confidence. Dealing with the widow’s five sons is another matter.
“Grace and Destitution” could be the translation of the original title of this short novel. Set in France it portrays a group of Gypsies who have set up camp on an abandoned piece of wasteland, on the outskirts of a city. “Grace and Destitution”: Angelina and her children in a nutshell.
From stereotypes to the harsh reality Alice Ferney delves into the lives, culture and identities of this Gypsy clan who despite “not having left the French soil since more than 400 years” still lives there as complete strangers to the country. The author shows them to truly be a clan, a culture of its own, both ostracized by the ‘real’ French and refusing to become Gadgés or be approached by them. Proud, enduring, free spirited, beautiful, they maintain their grace in the face of utter destitution: living in half broken caravans wherever they manage to settle without being immediately expelled. With a deep respect for family ties, the elders and ‘destiny’ they love fiercely, unconditionally, sometimes violently.
They do not let themselves be approached easily and refuse the standard way of living and administrative rules which mean nothing to them: when the registration official declares that ‘Djumbo’ isn’t an appropriate name for their last born they turn around and return home without a birth certificate. In fact their contacts with the exterior world seem to be virtually inexistent.
Those they do have are harsh, filled with intolerance and rejection. From the hospital to the school and the town hall Angelina’s family is rejected everywhere, its very existence denied. Without jobs, proper lodging, education or minimum wages they only represent for the authorities and neighbours undesirable squatters.
Their life is hard, down to earth, close to the fire, ground, blood and the seasons… Even in the middle of a wasteland plot, amidst dirt, shards of glass and improbable fuel for the fire such as smashed car seats. Their daily life seems to follow closely the seasons: the harsh winter from which all don’t always come out, followed by spring, a renewed sense of hope, unexpected pregnancies and the promises of better days to come.
In this environment the mothers are the life keepers, those who scrape up meals and fetch water from the far away tap, the feeders, protectors and minders of the children. They keep going day after day in the face of adversity, sustained by their duties. Without jobs the fathers seem lost, wander aimlessly throughout the day, occasionally tinkering with more or less legal odd jobs, trying to keep up appearances.
Arriving in the middle of this Esther, a ‘Gadgé’ by all means, slowly gets closer to the clan, penetrates it, is accepted by Angelina, the children and the parents… Through the books she brings with her and the stories she tells she slowly builds up trust and friendship. Indeed stories prove to be a real bridge: those she reads to the gipsy children are the same she tells her boys and my mother told me when I was a kid.
All in all this is a beautiful little book, both realist and with a poetic quality in the way it is written, which shows an unacceptable, hard to hear but unfortunately true reality. It is an appeal to open our eyes and reach out in whatever small way, to those around us. Indeed many volunteers from the ATD Quart Monde organisation reach out every week to underprivileged children with a box of books, in the very same way Esther does in Angelina’s Children.
It is also a testimony to the universality of stories. From Babar’s adventures to Andersen’s tales they prove once more to be universal, a fact which has always amazed me. Think of it: What is it that unites children (and adults) around the world and across cultures to enjoy tales of Babar or Harry Potter ? What common dreams do they feed?