Dictionary Of Gypsy Life and Lore, by H.E. Wedeck with the assistance of Wade Baskin
Reading this book, like reading many dictionaries of this kind, is a bit of an odd experience. There is a lot of repetition between topics, and the dictionary is probably more than a bit obsolete. The author has a clear and obvious agenda he is looking to support, namely the idea that the Romany are a long-ago set of vagabonds who left their home in India where they were very low caste and found their way around the rest of the world hindered by a great deal of hostility and prejudice. Admittedly, I do not read a book like this as someone who is well acquainted with the gypsies, but while it does appear as if they engage in a great deal of trickery and petty thievery (the book frequently mentions ways they like to poison pigs, for example, and engage in sheep rustling), the crimes of the Romany discussed in this book by and large strike me as the sorts of crimes that powerless and hungry people commit in a world where they own little property and face a great deal of privation and lack. That does not mean their existence has been unproblematic, though.
This book is a sizable one at 500 pages, and dwells at considerable length on a few subjects more than others. For one, the book is organized in alphabetical order, and contains surprisingly few discussions of individuals, which are the most interesting aspects of this book. A great deal of the book consists of comments about the culture, language, complexion, travels, structure, eating habits, religious superstitions, and problems faced by the gypsies around the world. Most of these dictionary entries, though, come from the point of view of outsiders, even as the author/compiler himself admits that this is not ideal. One gets a sense of what people have said or written about the gypsies, some beautiful photos of the people themselves, plenty of comments about people living in caves or wandering about fleeing persecution while simultaneously seeking to profit from the compassion of those around, but one does not get a great deal of what the people themselves feel about it. What do these vagabonds feel about the world in which they live, and their uncertain relationships with others? In what place would people like this be able to make an honest living given their cultural limitations if they could found relationships on mutual respect? These are the sort of questions one wonders upon reading this book.
Yet this book gives few answers. The stories of the Gypsies are frequently melancholy, whether one looks at the way they were falsely accused of kidnapping others, or the way that the internal demands on the honor of women and the external reputation of Gypsy women as being dishonorable caused such problems for those Gypsy girls who were thought of as beautiful by outsiders, and who were often made outcasts by their own community as well as being made fun of by outsiders. As someone who is personally and has always been an outsider, I find this sort of book both deeply poignant and somewhat disappointing, poignant in that it is an honorable thing for friendly outsiders of an outsider culture to write about them, but disappointing that the insights are so limited, the commentary mostly superficial, and a great deal of time is spent arguing over patterns of behavior and travel as well as origin myths, and so little understanding is given to the way that people view their own existence and its challenges. Something is gained as well as lost by being an outsider, even if what is lost and what is made vulnerable is something that is very difficult for insiders to fully understand.