I would be remiss if I didn’t start this review without commenting on the word “gypsy” and its use in Shawn David Brink’s (credited here as Shawn D. Brink) My Gypsy War Diary. While the word is embraced by some segments of the Roma community, it is reviled by others. The term “gypsy” is often used in a derogatory sense, with connotations relating to illegal behaviour, particularly thievery. While I aim to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I feel it is important to highlight that My Gypsy War Diary does indeed feature a “gypsy” threat that plays into such stereotypes. I note that from early in the book, and again by the time it reaches its conclusion, it highlights that this isn’t a race comprised solely of criminals, and this book does not aim to tar the entire group. However, noting that, this novel still plays into the negative stereotype. If such depictions are likely to cause you offence, this may not be the book for you.
While I find the use of the “gypsy” stereotype unfortunate, in every other respect, My Gypsy War Diary is a pure delight. Commencing in 1978, with the majority of its events taking place in 1985, this novel tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who befriends an elderly lady, Mrs. Scholes. Over the years, their friendship grows, as do mysterious circumstances around the elder, which sees the now teenage boy embarking on a quest. Through this, Brink explores Norfolk, Nebraska of this era, presenting a picturesque view of the town and what it is like to grow up in it in beautifully vivid detail.
In many ways, this is a young adult book, starring a teenage protagonist and telling their story. The narration, however, comes from this character years after the fact, presenting a coming of age story told in hindsight. The result is a narrative that is intoxicating; reminiscences of childhood through a now-adult lens.
After an opening chapter that uses finely-crafted prose to build a sense of dread, Brink then utilises this style to transport the reader into a more innocent setting, and guide them through the story. For the first half of the book, the story moves at a leisurely pace, unfolding slowly as it explores the friendship between the protagonist and Mrs. Scholes, while slowly imbuing it with a sense of mystery that will inform the adventure that takes place well into the book’s second half. While paced slowly, it never drags; it is a lovely story about friendship that beckons the reader to keep turning the pages. The remainder of its 202 pages in paperback, and estimated 309 pages on Kindle (the disparity, I assume is due to densely packed paperback pages) is dedicated to the adventure the protagonist embarks on, and touched upon by the book’s blurb. The pace picks up considerably as the character embarks on an adventure which feels like it stepped out of a children’s movie from the 80s.
Despite the shift in the narrative and the pacing that comes with it, the author has managed to maintain a consistent tone throughout, with the progression feeling entirely natural. This is a book packed to the brim with heart, and whether the character is walking his elderly friend to the shops or dodging an enemy’s gunfire, the prose completely charms the reader.
Aside from its view of childhood, much of this charm is thanks in no small part to its protagonist. The character isn’t named in the book, which I suspect is a deliberate choice to put the reader into his perspective. His narration throughout My Gypsy War Diary is full of life, bringing with it a vibrancy that is nothing short of absolutely engaging from beginning to end. The character injects humour into the narrative, as well as his daily dealings with Mrs. Scholes. As I read his asides, they brought a smile to my face, each and every time.
While characters other than the protagonist and Mrs. Scholes appear in My Gypsy War Diary, they flit in and out, included either to progress the plot or to fill necessary voids within the character’s life. As a result, so much of the book rests on Mrs. Scholes, who the reader sees through the prism of boyhood, and later, as a teen. The character is thoroughly engaging throughout, and through the protagonist’s eyes, the reader understands and feels his love of her.
As with Brink’s Pets for Legion (click here to read the review), the author explores themes relating to Christianity. Unlike that book, however, it isn’t central to the core of the novel. The protagonist is a staunch Christian, and Mrs. Scholes’ apparent lack of faith does play a part in the book (particularly in the protagonist’s fears for his dear friend), and a copy of the Bible plays a central part in the plot. While, personally, I wouldn’t say any of this adds to the story, readers of faith may indeed find that it does. However, it doesn’t detract from the story, nor does it distract from a beautiful narrative.
While I have some reservations about the depictions of the Roma people, and the book’s attempts to assuage these concerns aren’t entirely successful, the remainder of this novel is a beautiful coming of age story. It has adventure, it builds mystery, but most of all, My Gypsy War Diary is a heartfelt story about love that readers both young and old will be charmed by.
Something in her voice made me suspicious. I narrowed my eyes, put my hands on my hips, and tapped one of my feet up and down. I had once seen an episode of The Brady Bunch where Mrs. Brady did that action and it seemed to coax the truth out of Marsha Brady when Marsha was clearly hiding something.
Apparently however, such actions only on TV shows or Brady Bunch family members. Mrs. Scholes remained silent. I continued my actions nonetheless.My Gypsy War Diary, Chapter 11: “Guardian Angels”
My Gypsy War Diary was provided by the author for the purpose of an honest review.
My Gypsy War Diary is available in paperback and eBook formats from retailers, including—but not limited to—Amazon.
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