April 21, 2009

Book review: "The Gypsy In My Soul," by Christine Harris

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The Gypsy In My Soul, by Christine Harris
The Gypsy In My Soul
By Christine Harris
iUniverse / ISBN: 978-0-595-47434-9

I've posed the following question before here at CCLaP, but it's worth posing again -- of whether a person can eventually reach the point where they really "get" the Holocaust, or at least to the extent that it would be a waste of their time to read any more books on the subject. Because let's face it, the events that make up the Holocaust constitute a truly black time in human history, and is what many consider the absolutely most important period of the last hundred years to really and truly understand; but no matter what the historical event, no matter how horrific it was, there are only a certain amount of times one can study the details before one can say, "Okay, I now understand the details. And it would be pointless for me to read yet another book explaining the details, because I already understand all the details that book was going to explain to me." Such a thing, then, shifts the burden to the authors themselves, with it suddenly now their job to tell the well-known story in a new and unique way, or the truly remarkable feat of actually finding something legitimately new to say; and some authors are good at this, like this year's highly controversial novel The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (which I will be reviewing later this year, you can count on that), and some authors simply aren't that good at this, delivering stories at the end that contain not a single bit of information that you couldn't otherwise learn by picking up Art Spiegelman's Maus and renting Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.

And unfortunately it's the latter case today when it comes to Christine Harris' self-published The Gypsy In My Soul, the last title from the big box of books I received earlier this year from print-on-demand outfit iUniverse, a volume that gets an 'A' for effort and earnestness but sadly a much lower score when it comes to both originality and literary quality. Because make no mistake, Harris has an extremely noble aim here -- namely, to remind people that it wasn't just Jews who were exterminated during the Holocaust in mass quantities but also Gypsies as well (known these days by the more politically-correct term "Romanies") -- and she does this in an interesting fashion too, by framing the story through the modern tale of one victim's granddaughter, as she slowly uncovers her "secret shameful Gypsy past" and learns why her family's ethnicity was so thoroughly buried after the war in the first place. And for this I legitimately applaud Harris, for bringing to light an aspect of the Holocaust being rapidly forgotten with each passing year; that it wasn't just six million Jews who were killed in the process, but also hundreds upon thousands of gays, Mormons, intellectuals, ethnic tribes from eastern Europe, and a lot more.

But unfortunately, mere earnestness does not automatically translate into a good book, and here Harris doesn't seem to have much of true originality to actually say about it all, using every other chapter here to turn in a theoretical look at what this woman's life in the concentration camps was probably like, but which reads like a bad television movie by the end, hitting every pre-guessed beat you would possibly imagine a Holocaust tale having, and not a single bit more. And then the modern chapters making up the other half of the story are even worse from a pure literary standpoint, essentially a series of exposition-heavy and slightly insulting lectures on how none of us pay enough attention to the plight of the Gypsies during World War Two, and how it's high time that we do. And that's...well, that's boring and slightly insulting, like I said, more of a patronizing sermon than the gripping tale such a "fictionalized memoir" should be.

Now, I don't want to give this book an ultimately bad review, because it's ultimately not a bad book; and if you know absolutely nothing about the Holocaust, this volume would be a fine place to start. But the fact is that the entire point of literature is supposed to be to teach us something about the world, about life, that we didn't understand before; and if a book can't do that, it simply does not deserve a good score, no matter how noble its aims or sensitive the subject. Despite how badly I feel about giving a low rating to a Holocaust book, in this case I'm simply compelled to, and to face as a critic whatever wrath might come my way as a result. Although I don't recommend actively avoiding it, I also cannot in good conscience recommend The Gypsy In My Soul to a general audience.

Out of 10: 6.1

Read even more about The Gypsy In My Soul: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:40 PM, April 21, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |