Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s hard and happy times in the 1950s by Maggie Smith-Bendell

Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two: A Gypsy family’s hard and happy times on the road in the 1950s

Maggie Smith-Bendell (Adult Biography)

Many of us were born out on the pea fields. I was born on the pea field at Thurloxton, just up the road towards Bridgwater, so I felt right at home in the peas. Me dad always said that the best pickers were born in the fields, but I knew that was a load of bull to get me to pick faster. He must have thought me daft.

Born the second of eight children, Maggie was a Traveller—where working was a mainstay, where horses were treated better than family, and the seasons determined where you parked your wagon and for how long. It was a life of traditions, culture, and family, but being Romani also meant a way of life met with resistance, discrimination, and abuse. As a child, Maggie flourished in her surroundings. As an adult, she would spend every waking hour fighting to protect and maintain a culture and a people that were under never-ending assault.   

Maggie Smith-Bendell’s biography is a fascinating and rare look into the lives of the Romani Gypsy. Maggie lived within an incredibly tightknit community that valued tradition and thrived on the open road. Their nomadic lifestyle brought plenty of adventure, danger, uncertainty, and joy, but also its share of mistrust and mistreatment from the gorgies (non-Romani people) living in the towns where the Romani came to trade, shop, and sell their goods. Maggie’s words are so mesmerizing and poignant, that we somehow become immersed in her wonderful Gypsy world: smelling the smoke from the family’s campfire; feeling the blackberry brambles tear at our flesh; and weeping as we follow a casket moving slowly to its final resting place. It’s quite an accomplishment given what little formal education she received.

Perhaps the most inspirational part of Maggie’s story was her tireless advocacy work on behalf of the Romani people and her commitment to preserving their culture. Although she could have settled for a quiet, married life raising her children, she chose to dedicate her adult life to fighting for the Romani’s right to own and live upon their own land and to help them acquire homes, an education for their children, and healthcare. Maggie mentions the obstacles, defeats, and setbacks in her work, but she knows that it’s the victories that matter. The chance for another Romani to be able to claim a little piece of this planet as their own. As Maggie put it, “There is no feeling like the peace that comes with having a base to live from, to have a gate of your own to shut at night. The settled community take this security for granted, having known no other way of living. This is right and proper, but for us to share that security is really something else. It’s like catching up with the rest of the world.”

At eighty years of age, Maggie continues to fight for the rights of Gypsies and their way of life. Some have branded her a “land grabber” while she—on her Linkedin page—refers to herself as a “trouble maker”. Regardless of titles, she seems to take it in stride. After all, she knew from quite early on that the world was made up of different kinds of people—those who would accept her people and those who would curse their very existence. Maggie describes an encounter her father had with a police officer and wrote, “Some people did stop to have a word with us, and we enjoyed it when they took the time to speak. Others would pass us by, keeping their eyes on the road or in the hedge, not even glancing at the side of the road where we were stopped. Me dad always said that it took all sorts to make the world. It wouldn’t do for us all to be the same, would it?” Perhaps not all the same, Maggie, but a few more Gypsies might not be so bad.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Ghost of Grey Gardens: Lois Wright’s Life Story by Lois Wright & Tania Hagan

The Ghost of Grey Gardens: Lois Wright’s Life Story

Lois Wright and Tania Hagan (Adult Biography)

She didn’t mind being a ghost, as she had come to think of herself. She seemed to be in the background at Grey Gardens, in the film and in real life. No one knew she was there, and no one cared to look for her.

For decades, an eccentric mother/daughter duo captivated the attention and imagination of the world. Voluntarily confined to their deteriorating twenty-eight room mansion in East Hampton, New York, Edith Bouvier Beale (paternal aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and daughter Edie Beale lived a reclusive existence that was detailed in numerous documentaries, films, books, and even an award-winning musical. Theirs was a complex life with only a few allowed to enter it. One of those few was Lois Erdmann Wright and her story spans over ninety years.

This review may seem a little cold-hearted and harsh and should by no means be a reflection on Lois Wright personally or the life that she led and continues to do so (she will celebrate her 94th birthday in July 2022 and I wish her all the best). Every life is precious, but not every life is worthy of a book. This is one of those instances.

Lois Wright led a remarkable life, but to describe it as “improbable”—as she does so on the book’s cover—may be a bit of a stretch. She was a palmist, painter, and TV personality born into a well-off family that was loving and supportive. Her mother became friends with Edith Beale and so it was natural for the women’s daughters (Edie and Lois) to become tight as well. Their friendship was more like family and lasted decades. The Beale women hobnobbed with the best that society had to offer, but their status received an unexpected bounce when Jacqueline not only married the handsome John Kennedy, but became First Lady when her husband was elected the 35th President of the United States. Although Lois exhaustively described herself as “shy” and “introverted”, the added glare of the spotlight and its effects were surely not lost on her. While reading this book, I was reminded numerous times of the quote, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Out of all the media pertaining to Grey Gardens, only two were exclusively about Lois Wright: My Life at Grey Gardens: 13 Months and Beyond and The Ghost of Grey Gardens: Lois Wright’s Life Story. Both were written (or co-written) by Wright herself and both were independently published. Why? Simply—and respectfully—put, Lois Wright is NOT the story. She is merely a woman who knew two women who were related to a woman who married a man who later became president. No matter what Lois Wright accomplished or regardless of her maybe/possible/perhaps lineage that she professes in the book, the simple fact is that her life, no matter how interesting, is not what captivated the curiosity of the world.

Another problem I had with the book is the layout and the occasional sloppy editing. Hagan does thank her editor for her “speedy and accurate work” although I’m not sure about accurate and perhaps a little less speedy might have been helpful. There are tons of photos that Wright provides for this book (several being the same photo just taken at a different angle) that are placed haphazardly amongst the text and having little or nothing to do with the subject at hand. There are photos of people that we haven’t been introduced to yet along with a confusing image of Wright’s driver’s license and a copy of a certified mail receipt from a letter sent to Jacqueline Onassis. If these last two are the “never-before-seen documents” mentioned in the synopsis, maybe there’s a good reason that they remained unseen. Also, if you are going to include the names of your more famous clientele, it’s important to ensure that their names are spelled correctly. Liza Manelli (sic) and Mathew (sic) Broderick would probably appreciate it.

Lois Wright seems like an interesting woman, but she clearly is a woman full of contradictions: she complained of loneliness, but was determined not to marry or truly devote herself to a relationship; she claimed to be devoted to family, but moved away from her severely ailing brother after less than a month away from home; and she asserted time and time again of loathing attention while bemoaning her absence in one documentary while celebrating her inclusion in another. In the words of Salman Rushdie, “Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.” If Lois Wright does indeed consider herself to be the ghost of Grey Gardens, I hope that this book will finally put her business to rest and that whatever she is seeking—relevance, notoriety, validation, or peace—is eventually found.

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to: www.amazon.com

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (Biography)

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit 

Michael Finkel (Adult Biography)

There are three general groups that hermits can be divided into to explain why they seek isolation: protesters (those who detest what the world has become), pilgrims (often referred to as religious hermits), and pursuers (those seeking alone time for artistic reasons, scientific insight, or self-understanding).  Twenty-year-old Christopher Knight didn’t fit into any of these categories.  In 1986, for reasons unknown, he simply turned his back on the world and disappeared into the Maine woods for twenty-seven years—nearly 10,000 days.  By all accounts, Chris Knight was the most solitary-known person in all of human history and journalist Michael Finkel was about to share his unimaginable story with the world.

According to John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”  The same held true for Chris Knight.  He sought detachment, but needed essentials to survive and those essentials belonged to other people.  He was an island desperately needing food, clothing, and materials to ensure his survival in the harshest of elements and so Knight resorted to stealing from his fellow man.  To avoid detection for so long, he adhered to a strict set of rules: strike only after midnight, travel from rock to root or on ice to avoid leaving footprints, don’t steal from permanent residents, and take only pre-packaged or canned goods to avoid possible poisoning.  Aside from thievery, Knight held himself to a strict moral code and avoided personal contact at all costs.  But in life, nothing is certain except change and death and Knight’s idyllic world would soon come to a close without either incident or fanfare.

Because Knight kept no written account of his life, Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods is an extensive compilation of conversations with Knight (nine one-hour sessions over the course of two months); insights from psychologists, neuroscientists, and experts on autism; books on isolation, hermits, and solitude; and interviews with Knight’s family, neighbors, victims, and local law enforcement.  It is an exhaustive, profound, and gripping account of one man’s desire to be alone, yet was never lonely.  A man whose defiance to live according to societal norms brought him admiration from survivalists, condemnation from the violated, and contempt from the hermit community.  It’s ironic that a man determined to walk invisibly for so many years managed to leave such a large imprint on so many when all was said and done. 

History views banishment, solitary confinement, and marooning as the most severe forms of punishment.  For Chris Knight, he not only sought these conditions, he thrived in them.  Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” In his twenty-seven years alone in the Maine wilderness, Chris Knight managed to say only one audible word.  Looking back now, I’m sure he feels that that single word was one word too many.  

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Biography) by Joel ben Izzy

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness  

Joel ben Izzy (Adult Biography)

“There are some stories that make you feel warm and good inside, leaving you with the sense that all is right with the world.  There are others that simply make you laugh.  And then there are those you just don’t know what to do with, the kind that pass through your psyche like a mouse moving through a snake.”  This is a story about a man who lost so much only to gain even more.

Joel ben Izzy is a storyteller and a very successful one at that.  He has traveled the world delighting audiences with his folktales and stories.  He has a wife, two beautiful children, and is happy…until a routine operation robs him of his voice.  Just when our storyteller believes he has lost everything, his old teacher resurfaces to remind him that what is really important isn’t lost, but has yet to be found.

Joel ben Izzy combines his remarkable journey with tales about a lost horse, a jumping cricket, a border guard, Silence, Truth, and Death.  Through witty, poignant, and heartbreakingly honest writing, ben Izzy demonstrates why he is so remarkable and successful at what he does.  Very seldom does a book leave me absolutely charmed, entranced, and hopelessly smitten.  Such was my gift from this truly skilled storyteller.

ben Izzy’s former teacher once told him that his story was in the hands of a masterful storyteller.  There are those of us who believe this about our own story—that it is already written and we are merely being guided, chapter by chapter, to our final page.  Throughout our life, we hope that this storyteller is kind, merciful, generous, has a sense of humor, and perhaps suffers from bouts of amnesia.  But through it all, we pray for the courage to keep turning the next page—ever anxious to discover what the storyteller has in store for us next.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com