Lloyd Alexander,
Gypsy Rizka
(Dutton, 1999)

Lloyd Alexander has long enjoyed a reputation for creating feisty heroines, and Gypsy Rizka is no exception.

Welcome to Greater Dunitsa, located somewhere south of Gotham and east of Chelm. Greater Dunitsa is a town full of unique and eccentric characters, many of whom are kept in line by Rizka and her mustard-colored cat Petzel. Rizka lives by herself outside of town; her home is her father's vardo, a Gypsy caravan. Her Gypsy father wandered off when Rizka was a small child, leaving her with her mother, a townswoman, and since her mother's death, Rizka has waited for her father to return and claim her.

Her Gypsy background alone would be enough to win her the enmity of townspeople such as haughty Chief Councilor Sharpnack, pompous General Hatvan, Mayor Pumpa and his rival Mr. Podskalny, the cloth merchant and others. But Rizka survives by her wits -- a decided advantage over Sharpnack and the rest.

Rizka also has her allies, including Fibbich, the harried and overworked town clerk who indulges in fairy tales when he can; Mellish, the schoolteacher who has his head literally in the clouds; Miss Letta, the very proper seamstress who can still appreciate Rizka; and Big Franko, the blacksmith and Rizka's staunchest defender and, if necessary, protector.

Throughout the rather episodic novel, Rizka defends her cat in a court of law, earns the right to practice her healing, unites a couple of pairs of lovers, and engineers a complicated scheme to place some kittens into loving hands, just to name a few of her escapades. Recruiting her friends, who participate more or less willingly, she manages to make her own way. Even Rizka has something to learn, however. In the end, she finds out that "family" and "home" have much larger meanings than she ever dared to imagine.

Rizka is a delightful character surrounded by a deliciously oddball cast of characters portrayed so convincingly that one could swear the book is illustrated -- which it is not. The book has a looser construction than most of Alexander's other novels, which usually center on a quest. Gypsy Rizka stays in one place, giving more emphasis to the theme of being at home. As usual, Alexander employs just the right tone and chooses just the right words to give the book the flavor of the "Wise Men of Gotham" or the foolish dwellers in Chelm while remaining wholly original. This is a book that begs to be read aloud and can be enjoyed by the whole family. Plan a trip to Greater Dunitsa today!

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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