Sunday 22 February 2015

Review: The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

I'd never heard of The Diddakoi until someone recommended it during a #ukmgchat event on Twitter, which was on the theme of diversity in children's literature. I ordered a copy on that basis but, being a bit thick, I assumed the title was along the lines of The Gruffalo, or Jabberwocky or The Babadook, meaning I thought it was about a strangely-monikered monster. D'oh!

As I now know, "diddakoi" (or diddicoy/didicoi/didakai) is a pejorative slang word for "gypsy" or "Roma" or "traveller", as we would now say. 

Written and set in 1972, The Diddakoi tells the story of Kizzy Lovell, a young orphaned traveller child and her struggle for acceptance in a small English village. Readers of a certain age may remember Kizzy, a six-part BBC adaptation from 1976 which is available on YouTube.

One of the things that struck me while reading The Diddakoi is how far we've come in forty-odd years. As with watching the BBC cop show Life On Mars, it's sometimes shocking to recall the open racism, sexism and other -isms that were commonplace at the time. To her credit Rumer Godden, who spent much of her early life in colonial India, does not downplay these issues and bullying, as well as the unintentional damage caused by well-meaning but ill-informed people, is front and centre in the novel. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider can relate to Kizzy's predicament and her quiet strength draws you in to rooting for her to succeed in changing the world around her.

On one level, The Diddakoi is a simple tale, beautifully told and, while some techniques such as embedded dialogue seem a bit dated, the central story itself is timeless. Godden brings the fictional village of Amberhurst to life with a host of well-drawn and recognisable characters, ranging from the local busybody to the lord of the manor without reducing them to caricatures, and the moving finale avoids being twee and sentimental. The descriptions of Romany culture and customs are fascinating and I learned a great deal.

If you're looking for a heart-warming book which teaches children about the strengths in being different and taking pride in their roots, then I thoroughly recommend The Diddakoi.

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