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Gypsy Rizka
Lloyd Alexander
Dutton, 176 pages

Gypsy Rizka
Lloyd Alexander
This author's many honours include Newbery Medals for The High King and The Black Cauldron, and National Book Awards for The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian and Westmark. Another of his books, The Arkadians, received critical acclaim and appeared on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award Master List. Alexander and his wife live in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Wizard in the Tree
SF Site Review: Time Cat
SF Site Review: The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha
SF Site Review: The Arkadians
SF Site Review: The Iron Ring
Lloyd Alexander Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Lloyd Alexander has been writing some of the best American children's literature for the past 35 years. I first discovered him almost 20 years ago through his Prydain Chronicles, a masterful retelling of Welsh mythology. This led me to Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion-based novels, and in turn to a year's delving into the Mabinogion itself and the whole family of Welsh-derived Arthurian mediaeval romances. Over the years I must admit to have somewhat lost touch with Alexander's writing, but upon reading Gypsy Rizka I have certainly rediscovered the charm of his work.

The best children's authors, like Lloyd Alexander, have a universal appeal, being entertaining yet not condescending to the young, and taking on an additional layer of humour and escapism as an adult. While the last two volumes of the Prydain Chronicles were a bit grim, compared to some of the rather dark children's works by Roald Dahl, Alexander's stories generally have had a light humorous tone.

Gipsy Rizka is a wonderful farce about an orphan half-gypsy girl who cons and manipulates the lives of the quirky and frequently foolish inhabitants of the small town of Greater Dunitsa. She must constantly outfox Chief Councilor Sharpnack who is obsessed with ridding the town of her, especially after her big fluffy cat Petzel absconds with his roast chicken. As a romance broker, she helps a shy ballooning enthusiast pop the question to the lovely seamstress Miss Letta, and helps the children of the ever-quarrelling Mayor Pumpa and cloth merchant Poskalny out of a Romeo and Juliet-like situation, and on to wedded bliss. Rizka, through complex stratagems, finds homes for stray cats and provides fantasy landscapes for an overworked but friendly old city clerk.

In the backdrop of this gay trickery and buffoonery of the townspeople is the fact that Rizka still waits for her gypsy father to come back for her. When the gypsies do return and prepare to move to warmer climes for the winter she must decide who really are her people.

Nowadays, a great deal of popular children's literature is firmly based in reality with few elements of the fantastic. In this sense, if one is not able to suspend disbelief and accept Gypsy Rizka as a work of pure fantasy where a minimum of reality and logic are not required, one will be disappointed. This sort of children's literature harkens back much more to fairy tales and some forms of humorous Eastern European literature of one-upmanship and the absurd, than to the large proportion of modern children's literature which deals with a child's place and problems in modern society.

In some ways I think Alexander's form of fantasy may be more effective at distancing its young readers from the pressures of their society than those works that directly address these pressures. Sometimes escapism beats the documentary hands down. While I might have liked a bit more about gypsy culture included throughout the story, all the characters, however silly or absurd, were wonderfully presented.

One picks up books by certain authors knowing they will be good. Even the weakest work by a Bradbury or a Tolkien has a certain something that places it above the rest of the field, and their best works are monoliths towering over the literary landscape. The same is true of Lloyd Alexander. While not as ambitious or complex as the Prydain Chronicles, which after all was 5 novels, Gypsy Rizka shows the same ability of the master storyteller to involve us in the world of his making. So take a trip in your mind to Greater Dunitsa, meet the people, and keep an eye out for that darn gypsy girl.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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