Mindful Make-believe: “The Gypsy Game” on compassionate cosplay

TheGypsyGameZilpha Keatley Snyder.  The Gypsy Game.  New York:  Delacorte, 1997.

Rating:  3.95 out of 5 bears disguised as lovable shaggy dogs

Recommended if you like:  Sequels that remind you why you loved these characters in the original.  Difficult topics offset by relatable, conversational narration.  Stories that at least start a conversation.

Pitfalls:  Rushed, public service announcement ending; unbalanced focus on the negative parts of Roma history; not much discussion of present-day Roma culture.

NOTE:  I’m going to be using both “Roma” and “Gypsy” in this post, depending on the context — i.e. whether the characters are discussing the stereotyped/mythical concept of a Gypsy vs. the historical and present-day Roma people.  However, I am aware that opinions differ within the Roma community about which term is preferable.

*  *  *  *  *

The story begins exactly where The Egypt Game left off.  Best friends April and Melanie are enjoying their food comas on Christmas night and contemplating a new Game to play, when April gets an idea:

“What do you know about Gypsies?”

As I said in my 2018 DNF report, the story has a promising start.  April and Melanie, along with their fourth-grade friend Elizabeth, and Melanie’s four-year-old brother Marshall, go straight to the library for a research session.  They learn that the Roma people originated in India, though most people think they came from Egypt (nice nod to the previous book 🙂 ).  The kids get a bit too noisy, giggling about fun ideas like palm-reading and bear-training, and trying to pronounce Romany words (Romany is the Roma language).

This is the part of the story with the most Egypt Game charm.  April is her lovably bossy, snarky self; Melanie is the level-headed, fair one; Elizabeth is sweet and sensitive; and Marshall shows his unique blend of dignified maturity and four-year-old innocence.

Here’s one of my favorite Zilpha Keatley Snyder lines:

April frowned.  Even though Melanie was the best friend she’d ever had, she sure could be a drag when she wanted to.  Like when she made you feel kind of mean for saying something mean about somebody, even though you didn’t mean to be mean at all.  (pg. 8)

And I like how Snyder portrays April and Melanie’s best-friendship through their body language.  They’re constantly looking to each other for cues on how to react to situations, giving each other looks that speak louder than words.  In short, my favorite aspect of Snyder’s stories is the nostalgic focus on childhood friendship — on shared imagination.  The kind of friendship and make-believe I seriously hope the characters will carry into their adult lives.

But back to the story…  

On their way home from the library, April & co. run into their other friend, Toby, whom April really was going to include in the Gypsy Game, no really, once she and Melanie had it all set up, honest!  And, wouldn’t you know it?  It turns out that Toby just happens to be part Roma himself!

Convenient

At first, the girls are thrilled when Toby shows them his family heirlooms — shawls and headbands and jewelry — and Marshall gets totally hooked on the idea of finding a real Gypsy bear to train.  But then Toby starts acting strange, and Melanie starts reading more about Roma history, and suddenly it all just doesn’t feel like a game anymore.

And this is where the story could have turned into a positive lesson on stereotypes vs. reality.  The kids could have talked about the problem with romanticizing and minimizing Roma culture, treating it like it’s just about fortune telling and dancing bears.  They could have learned about the persecution of the Roma throughout Europe — and then looked for information about present-day Roma communities and performers.

NOTE #2:  For anyone who’s interested in news about 21st-century Roma issues, you might start with The Guardian‘s page on Roma, Gypsies, and Travelers.

Instead, (vague SPOILERS ahead…skip to pg 3 if you don’t want to be vaguely spoiled) the story veers into an unrelated custody plot and, when it does return to the topic of the Gypsy Game, it focuses only on the awful history and completely dismisses any positive aspects of Roma culture.  The story portrays the Roma as if they no longer exist, as if they’re a subject that’s “too depressing” to talk about, let alone celebrate.

This is the same problem I had with Dear Fang, With Love, by Rufi Thorpe, which (as far as I’ve read in the first half of the book) focuses on the grim aspects of Lithuanian history (and present-day society) at the expense of the proud and majestic and joyful.

Dear Fang

On the flip side, I’m also reminded of the essays in Urban Tribes, Dreaming in Indian, and #NotYourPrincess, which encourage readers not to think of Native American cultures as purely historical.  Because, when we do that, we can start to use that attitude as an excuse to ignore present-day communities’ needs and rights.

I will say this for the custody plot ending (no spoilers):  the nonchalant tone with which Snyder introduces heavy topics like drugs, alcohol, and criminal activity could be comforting to young readers who’ve been exposed to similar situations and who are trying to fit in with peers who are used to more “wholesome” environments and stories.  I think Snyder’s tone helps kids to not feel “othered” or “bad” if they’ve witnessed or grown up in difficult circumstances.

So!  What does all this mean for respectful LARP-ing, cosplaying, and trick-or-treating?  

6 comments

  1. I try to be aware of other cultures and such when I dress up, and when you presented a link to costumes that should be banned, I had to click it. My neck hurts from all the head-shakings-of-disbelief that reading it caused. For those curious to know, the first costume they discuss is a holocaust victim costume that was designed for a child.

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