Before reading the novel Eve’s Garden by Glenda Bailey-Mershon, everything I knew about the Roma people came from Cher’s 1970s-era hit Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves, and let me tell you right now that my friend Glenda will read this paragraph and reach immediately for a nitroglycerin tablet, smelling salts, or a shot of whiskey, whichever is closer. Because: a. the word Gypsy is not particularly cool; b. the Romani people are not tramps and thieves; and c. Cher wasn’t Roma, and wasn’t even born in the wagon of a traveling show. Unrelated: Cher isn’t a Half-Breed, either! She may or may not be about 1/16 Cherokee. Faker.
Point: The Roma people remain among this nation’s most mysterious and misunderstood ethnicities, seldom mentioned and oft maligned, and not very well-represented in literature. Hooray for Bailey-Mershon’s efforts to fill that void. Eve’s Garden recounts a family saga stretching through three generations of an American Romani clan, although that’s kind of like saying The Grapes of Wrath describes a family trip out west. Bailey-Mershon’s story is a complex tale, thick with layers built from a century’s worth of cultural and societal development. But the important stuff is wrapped up in delicious stories of love, poverty, grief, and loyalty. It’s the literary equivalent of eating a brownie inexplicably loaded with shredded vegetables – an absorbing tale that’s entertaining and enlightening, and a history lesson to boot.
While I devoured Eve’s Garden, the laundry piled up and the kids were reduced to eating peanut butter sandwiches three times a day because I neglected to go to the grocery. The women in this book – Holy Joan of Arc, I LOVE STRONG WOMEN – grabbed my attention on page one, and by Chapter 3 I was in their thrall, all eyes and ears and senses on alert as I learned about a culture that had been entirely foreign to me.
First, some history: the Romani, or Roma, people originated in India and migrated through Europe and into the United States. Through the years, they’ve been as plagued by discrimination and hatred as other ethnic minorities, and suffered mightily under the Nazi regime – as many as a million were exterminated. Approximately one million Roma live in the U.S. now, and yes, many remain branded as “gypsies” – a clandestine traveling clan of people notoriously difficult to pin down. It’s true that groups of Roma people kept to themselves and moved often – mostly because of the prejudice they faced in towns and cities. But many settled down and tried to preserve ancient heritage while assimilating into American culture.
Bailey-Mershon wrote her story from experience. She grew up in Appalachia, and moved frequently because her parents were mill workers. Her father was Roma, although she didn’t learn that until she was 13. When she questioned her mother about her father’s unique traditions and customs, her mother said he was “just strange.” Later, she began researching the Roma, and speaking out against the social injustices that have plagued them.
Her novel follows the stories of two women separated by a half-century: Evangeline has just buried her mother and, at age 16, has agreed to marry a man twice her age because she has nowhere else to go. He isn’t Roma, and she knows that her brothers, who have disappeared, would not approve; but the man seems committed to her, and she feels compelled to begin a new life with him. As they pack up her few belongings, he agrees to take her mother’s beloved persimmon trees to replant on their new homestead.
The other woman, Evie, is Evangeline’s granddaughter, and she too is a child when we first meet her. She understands that she’s different from her best friend, Beverly, but she doesn’t understand why. Like Bailey-Mershon, she doesn’t learn of her heritage until she’s a teenager. But Beverly, too, is a bit of an outcast, and the girls navigate adolescence with both youthful optimism and ever-present fears of the future, unaware of how the strength of their ancestors has contributed to their own senses of self. Lots of other interesting women sprinkle color and humor through the novel, and at times I became nearly overwhelmed with keeping them all straight. But the plethora of characters drove home the point that the ebbs and flows of one woman’s life can trickle down through the ages – a single moment can define the course of a generation, and that’s exactly what happens here.
Bailey-Mershon tells the two stories simultaneously in alternating chapters; the tactic allows us to explore the differences and similarities between the generations. Evangeline eventually becomes a midwife to the women in her small town, although most of them still fail to accept her as an equal. Her daughter Maisie – Evie’s mother – remembers this, and knows that revealing her ethnicity will inevitably make her family’s life more difficult. And so Evie, in a sense, grows up robbed of the opportunity to learn about her ancestors, and indifferent to the struggles they may have endured. A family tragedy leads to questions she’s finally ready to ask.
Family, in fact, is the key word throughout Eve’s Garden – the Roma people strongly believe in the sanctity of the family, and were known to turn their backs on clan members who married outside of their ethnicity. But Bailey-Mershon convincingly makes the point that family is also what you make of it – and that it’s possible to create a family through connections other than blood. Still, such blended family trees remain tinted and defined by their roots – and that very diversity makes for an awesomely dramatic tale to read.