Book Review: American Gypsy



Title: American Gypsy

Author: Oksana Marafioti

Genre: Non-fiction / Memoir

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Length: 368 pages

Library: South Park Township Library

Challenge: Library Books Reading Challenge 2013

Summary: A Romani teen and her family emigrate to the United States, but never really leave the Soviet Union behind.


“Gypsy” is a charged word, filled with connotations, associations, and projections. As with any such word, it’s great to see it used by someone who can legitimately name it, claim it, and try to explain what the hell it really means to the rest of us. Because Romani were despised in the Soviet Union, Marafioti’s family uprooted themselves and made their way to California, quite possibly the best place ever to be a confused teenager. However, when her father abandons the family for another woman, Oksana is stuck trying to figure out not only how to get through high school relatively unscathed, but also just what, in her Gypsy heritage, is worth cherishing and preserving.

The narrative flickers back and forth between Oksana’s life in the Soviet Union, in which she spent a great deal of time on the road traveling with her family’s musical group, and her new life in America. Poverty, violence, racism, and the occult were simply part of life in Russia, exposing Oksana to a range of experiences most American children her age wouldn’t have until much older, if ever. Toughened by trauma, the normal tribulations of being an American teen don’t faze Oksana a bit: she’s too busy trying to convince her dad she doesn’t want to learn divination (a/k/a “the family business”), and would much rather be a musician instead. And then she meets Cruz, a handsome boy in her class who is definitely not Romani, which puts him out of her reach…maybe. If her father doesn’t find out. Which he will. Oh dear.

If it sounds complicated, it is, and in the best possible way. Sophisticated in some ways and naive in others, Oksana is someone teens–with their natural penchant for drama and heartbreak–can relate to. The girl’s got a lot on her plate, but she finds solutions that allow her to be who she wants to be, without causing a permanent rift between herself and the people she loves most. And if a memoir must have a message, that’s as good a one as any: that even an American Gypsy can determine her own future, rather than have it predicted by others.

Recommended for: older teens to adults, readers who aren’t offended by frank discussions of sex, drinking, and the occult, readers who are interested in immigrant stories, coming-of-age stories, Romani culture and/or the history of the Soviet Union. People who tend to laugh at things most might find inappropriate. People who love music.

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