The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden ~ 1972. This edition: Macmillan, 2007. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-330-45330-1. 152 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10.
Also published as Gypsy Girl in some editions. Do not confuse with another of Rumer Godden’s titles – Gypsy, Gypsy (1940) – which is a decidedly adult novel.
I have a vaguely uneasy relationship with this small story of the half-Irish, half-Romani (“gypsy girl”) Kizzy. The writing is of very high quality (no surprise there; Rumer Godden seemed incapable of turning out a poorly written phrase) but the plot – oh! – the plot is terribly contrived, especially when read with today’s sensibilities.
Young Kizzy, about 6 or 7 years old (she doesn’t know her birthday), lives with her great-great grandmother in a shabby, blocked-up gypsy wagon on a corner of Admiral Sir Archibald Twiss’s estate. Ancient Joe, who used to pull the wagon, grazes away his days and is Kizzy’s favourite companion, and all is generally well, if occasionally cold and hungry, in Kizzy’s little world.
The village do-gooder, Mrs. Cuthbert, twigs to the fact that Kizzy is school-age and decidedly not at school; she cries “neglect!” and calls in the welfare officer and the official wheels are set in motion. Off our wee heroine goes to the village school, where she immediately falls afoul of a village’s worth of young “mean girls” (ringleader none other than Mrs. Cuthbert’s daughter Prue) who set upon her as a ready-made victim for their taunts.
Kizzy copes as best she can, but things get even worse. Her Gran dies, relatives are located and called in to deal with things, the wagon is burned in accordance with Gran’s wishes (an old Romani custom upon a death), and Joe is destined for the knacker’s yard, while an argument erupts over who will take Kizzy in. No one much wants her.
Kizzy takes control of her own destiny, and of Joe’s, escaping in the night and ending up on Admiral Twiss’s doorstep begging sanctuary for her horse. Of course, in the proper melodramatic tradition, she now falls ill and “cannot be moved” (apparently there are no ambulances available in 1970s England to transport a gravely ill child to hospital!) and must be cared for by the Admiral and his two devoted retainers.
To condense: Kizzy is re-homed with understanding Miss Brooke, though with more than a little resistance from Kizzy who was quite content in the Admiral’s bachelor establishment. The bullying at school escalates into a physical episode where Kizzy is injured, bringing the situation at long last to the official notice of the village adults who had been letting things work themselves out. The young bullies are allowed their chance at redemption; Kizzy learns to love dedicated Miss Brooke; a proper home is providentially provided; and all’s well that ends well.
For all of the predictability and sometimes glaring flaws in the plot-line, this story works out quite well. We develop an affection and admiration for this stubbornly individual child who refuses to be a victim of fate, even while being tossed and turned by events beyond her control. Though the ending is a little too good to be true, we feel that justice has been done at last; it serves to satisfy the moral craving for “good to be rewarded, wicked to be punished” which lies at the heart of all classic story tales.
A bit of a period piece. Especially dated, in my opinion, is the episode of the young girl being left in the intimate care of three men completely unrelated to her, with the full approval of the local doctor and the child welfare officer – does anyone else raise an eyebrow at this unlikely nowadays scenario? A sentimental read for teens and adults, and a generally interesting and satisfying children’s book.
Read-Aloud: Works well as a read-aloud for all ages of children, though prepare for discussion of the bullying as it is quite graphic. There are also two deaths (Granny and Joe), plus a nearly tragic episode involving a house fire. The narrative jumps around somewhat, making it challenging to follow for very young children; I’m thinking 6 or 7 and up is best though littler ones could certainly listen in. This story moves along at a good pace and holds interest well both for the reader and the listeners.
Read-Alone: Good chapter book for fluent readers in the 7-ish to 11-ish year-old age range. Written with an advanced (adult) style and vocabulary; not at all an “easy reader” but a “real book” for a novice bibliovore to tackle.