Book Review: The Snow Gypsy

The Snow Gypsy

Ashford, Isabella

Lake Union Publishing, 2019

Spain, April 1938: 14 year old Lola takes the family’s goats and heads up to the mountain pastures for them to feed.  As she returns later in the day, a late season snow storm moves in, and as she gets closer to the village she hears shouting followed by gunshots. Terrified, but recognizing the voice, she sets off toward the ravine where she knows the sounds has come from. By the time she reaches it, all she finds are cold, lifeless bodies gradually being covered by the softly falling snow.  She searches until she finds the ones she was looking for, a woman and a boy, and lies between them willing herself to lie still so that she will simply freeze to death and join them. But the goats won’t let her.  They stand around and nibble at her boots and hat.  She wishes they would stop. But they don’t.  And then she hears something, a soft sound she can’t place.  She gets up to investigate it, and finds an infant, still connected by it’s umbilical cord to it’s severely wounded mother. With her dying breath she breathes out “Take my baby.”

England, Summer of 1936: Rose, a veterinary student in London, is spending the summer living in a tent amongst the wetlands in hopes of learning herbal treatments for animals from the Gypsies based there for the season.  Her brother stops by her camp to tell her goodbye, as he has decided to travel to Spain to join the left leaning Republicans in their fight against the fascist Nationalists.

In the Spring of 1946 Rose once again heads to the wetlands.  By now a successful vet with her own practice in London and a published book based on her knowledge of herbal cures, she has more or less been adopted by a Gypsy clan, who are nearly as close to her as her biological family.  With her parents both dead and no word from her brother since a letter in 1938, Rose has turned her attention to trying to track down her brother. She was heading to the Gypsy camp with his last letter, hoping to gain some insight.   Her brother had written that he was fighting alongside some Gypsy men, and that the town they sometimes visited had a spring with an odd inscription, and she wanted to know if any of the Gypsies she knew might be able to help her narrow in on the location.

So begins the two stories which weave their way through The Snow Gypsy.  It is a well-told story, which does tend to rely a bit much on children, dogs, and coincidence but uses those predictable paths as a way to hit on and explore many topics one wouldn’t expect to find based on the clearly visible outcomes of the key structure. And then there is a final twist and wrap-up that is a bit overly dramatic for my tastes.




As for the overall story, although none of the English Gypsies can provide Rose with any more information than she already has, they do let her know about a large Gypsy gathering in France where she might be able to find some Spanish Gypsies who could possibly have more information.  Taking a leave of absence from her practice, she drops everything and heads to France.  Lola, meanwhile, has established herself as a stunning flamenco dancer in Grenada and makes a living performing in bars accompanied by Nieve, the baby she rescued and is raising, and her cousin, with whom they settled after she escaped from the village.  They have decided to join the gathering in France to take part in a flamenco competition promising a massive cash prize for the winners.

Against all odds (except in literature) Rose and Lola meet and, through the agency of Rose’s dog and Lola’s daughter, become such good friends in the space of a few hours that Rose ends up joining Lola and her group traveling by horse drawn wagon back to Spain, and oh, by the way, Lola grew up in the next town over from the spring Rose’s brother mentioned.  The prize money promises Lola and Nieve the start of a better life in Madrid where Lola hopes to turning her dancing into a professional movie career, seconded by Rose teaching them to read during the long journey.  They have a few days back in Grenada before planning to split up with Rose going on to the mountains and Lola and Nieve leaving their cousin’s home and striking off for Madrid, but on the eve of their departure Lola in self-defense kills a man who tried to rape her on her way home from the bar where she had given a final dance performance.

Tossed into a miserable jail cell with no hope of a fair trial, Rose makes the most of her ability as a British citizen to work her way into being allowed to visit Lola and offers to represent her and force a trial, but Lola, well aware of the government’s policy of “transplanting” children from questionable backgrounds, pleads with Rose to take Nieve and go to the mountains.  Rose agrees, but promises to do all she can.

So Rose and Nieve find themselves showing up in a town in the Spanish mountains pretending to be mother and daughter.  Rose finds herself met with deep suspicion both on account of her sudden appearance in a town not used to outsiders and her personal appearance, as she has become skilled at passing as a Gypsy over the prior weeks and is now in an environment where Gypsies are viewed with suspicion and distrust.  Although looking for her brother or information about him, she quickly decides that her best approach will be to rest on her background as an author and claim she is there to write a book. To try and keep the air of normalcy and to avoid suspicion, she enrolls Nieve in school and they somewhat settle into village life, despite lodging in a mill run by a woman who very clearly does not want them there.

By chance Rose runs into a man selling cherries at the market, also an outsider, who has a sick mule, and with no vet in the village she offers to help.  They develop a friendship and after she talks about her brother he identifies that the cabin he is living in was used by the partisans, and in a box of things he found when he moved in they find a letter in her brother’s handwriting using his nickname, as well as a picture of his Spanish fiancé. Desperate for more information than he has, he takes Rose to visit an older woman living nearby who, seen as a witch by some and a healer by others, had helped people from both sides of the conflict. After realizing that they were kindred spirits, she passed on to Rose that her brother had been killed in 1938 trying to protect his pregnant fiance… and reading into Rose’s unasked question, identified that yes, it was in the ravine that day, but no, Nieve was the daughter of another woman. And Rose suddenly realized that her brother’s body was one of the ones that Lola had possibly brushed the snow from looking for her mother and brother.

At around the same time, one of the letters Rose wrote reached the attention of the mayor of Grenada’s wife who, as a fellow Englishwoman who had had a friend who was raped and died of her injuries, made a case for Lola’s release based on self-defense.  When this news reached Rose, however, she was in the midst of dealing with a potential new tragedy, that of Nieve having contracted typhus.  After receiving an urgent telegram from Rose on her first day home from jail, Lola abandons her view never to return to her home area and sets of.  She arrives just in the nick of time as Nieve has been steadily declining, unable to take any medicine herbal or otherwise, and the doctor had advised that she only has a few hours left to live.  Lola takes over from Rose in tending to Nieve, and in a fitful sleep Rose dreams of her brother riding his favorite horse up to the cabin and pointing at something white on the ground.  When she wakes up Nieve is in a terrible state, but when she looks out the window she sees white flowers she hadn’t seen there before in the spot from her dream.  Knowing that they are a very powerful and potentially lethal drug, but also knowing how desperate Nieve’s situation is, she decides that she has to take the chance… And Nieve recovers.

Once well enough to travel, Lola and Nieve are going to head back to Grenada and on to Madrid while Rose has opted to stay for a bit with her friend on the mountain before probably going back to England…  But a last minute drama, best left to the reader,  leads to the 3 of them retracing Lola’s path up and over the mountains on foot.

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