Cannonball Read / Genny (also Rusty)
Book Reviews | February 4, 2009 | Comments ()
Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca is a relatively short book that covers a lot of ground very quickly. She begins with her experiences living with a Gypsy family, and from there manages to cover the suspected origins of the Gypsy people, Gypsy history in Europe, how Gypsies fared during the holocaust and subsequent communist regimes, and current (when the book was published in the mid-90’s) efforts to fight for Gypsy rights and bring attention to the persecution and human rights violations frequently visited on Gypsy communities. She uses the more politically correct term Roma interchangeably with the word Gypsy, though she does discuss racist terms for the Gypsy people in other languages. All of this happens in just over 300 pages, which makes for a quick but dense read. I found myself re-reading passages occasionally to make sure I’d gotten all the information that was contained in them.
I could not, however, tell you that Bury Me Standing is an upbeat read. Many instances of Gypsy persecution are retold, frequently from the Gypsies and their children who lived through them. Fonseca meets homeless children who are addicted to sniffing glue, some of whom work as prostitutes, a young girl who was hideously burned when locals burned down multiple Gypsy homes, and retells many stories of the more mundane yet disturbingly widespread and institutionalized racism that allows these hideous conditions to exist. On a tour of Aushwitz, where there was a separate camp for Gypsy inmates, the Polish guide makes no mention of their presence. When Fonseca asks her about them, the guide sneers that “even in Aushwitz, the Gypsies did not work.” Despite all this, the end covering the efforts to unite the Gypsy people and end these kinds of persecution seem stymied from the beginning given the inherent difficulties in uniting a group of exceptionally independent people who are by necessity suspicious of outsiders. Even Gypsies who became educated talk about the difficulties of working towards making the Gypsies into a vocal minority, and talk about how when one Gypsy works to achieve beyond his or her peers that person is often dragged down or outcast from the community. There is widespread illiteracy and unemployment, and the first family that Fonseca stays with shows her that in most households the wives (who are married off at around 13 or 14) do the vast majority of the work. The Gypsies who are unsatisfied with their position in life as poor, uneducated, and outcast are the exception, not the rule.
Despite all this, Bury Me Standing is exceptionally informative and instructive. As someone who was in elementary school during the majority of the Balkan conflict, it helped me to get a sense of the conditions that led to that war and the difficulties that these countries faced in the post-communist world. It was also a very good look at a minority that is often overlooked in the history of Europe, despite their long history in the area. I had never known that Gypsies were traded as slaves, for example, or the sheer number of Gypsies killed in World War II and during other periods of racial cleansing. Fonseca doesn’t mince words when it comes to her subjects (in the introduction alone she simply states “Gypsies lie. They lie a lot.” but goes on to clarify its cultural relevance) but through her close connection with members of different Gypsy communities, she makes them into sympathetic figures. Included throughout the text are pictures that help to bring home the reality of the poverty that the Gypsies live in, or exactly how young the Gypsy brides are, strengthening the connection you feel to these people. The text is occasionally dry, but the breadth of Fonseca’s research makes up for that.
Bury Me Standing is a very complete look at the Gypsy people, and while slightly outdated, presents an excellent overview of the unique challenges that they faced going into the 21st century.