Writer walked in footsteps of character

Friday August 5, 2011

Most great works of literature are spawned from the author's own extraordinary life experiences. Sonia Meyer's case is no different. She drew inspiration for her novel, "Dosha: Flight of the Russian Gypsy," from both her childhood nomadic experiences and her time living with Gypsies later in life.

Meyer will be speaking at the Northshire Bookstore on Thursday, Aug. 11, at 7 p.m. -- where she plans to talk about her life, the Gypsy culture, and also the role Vermont played in the writing of her novel.

"Dosha," a story of adventure, history and romance, follows a young Russian Gypsy named Dosha through World War II. The story begins and ends in 1957 during a visit by Nikita Kruschev, the leader of the Communist Party, to Helsinki, Finland.

The reader is then transported back to 1941, when Russian Gypsies' answer Stalin's call to join in resisting the advancing Germany army in Poland. At the time, Russia was friendly and accepting of the gypsies among them. However, upon the Gypsies' return to Russia, their plans to resume their isolated lifestyle are thwarted by a sense of hostility, which eventually culminates in the "Cultural Thaw."

Dosha is destined to become the next leader of her tribe, but must keep her identity a secret to survive. She reinvents herself as Ana Dolova, a moniker which her tall, blonde Russian features help her to maintain. Eventually, she and her beloved horse are recruited to the Soviet Olympic dressage equestrian team. But, even as she finds success as an international athlete, Dosha despises her new lifestyle, finding the outside world "unclean," and can only think of defecting.

The novel concludes at it's starting point, Helsinki, where Dosha is set to perform for Kruschev -- but secretly plans to escape.

Gypsy culture is crucial to Meyer's novel, especially their relationship with horses. Meyer displays the intuitive love between a horse and its rider and also how highly revered horses are among Gypsies. This aspect of Gypsy culture is unknown to many, partially because Gypsy tradition and history in general is so mysterious to many. This stems from the nomadic and private nature of their culture, in which the outside world is believe to be polluted.

Gypsies have been persecuted throughout most of their existence, and have often dealt with this harassment by avoidance. In the present day, this evasion has become nearly impossible, but they continue to be discriminated against and persecuted by various countries in Europe, as well as in the United States, where approximately one million gypsies are thought to reside.

Meyer is as fit a source as any to tell a story so rife with tidbits of Gypsy culture, as she has various experiences interacting with their famously closed culture.

She describes the first part of Dosha's story as autobiographical, as she was not yet two when she fled Germany with her mother and partisan father during World War II to hide in the woods of Poland. There, she often happened upon the Gypsies who inhabited the same territory. Upon her family's return to disheveled Cologne, she foraged for food with local Gypsy boys in order to survive. Meyer continued this drifting lifestyle for years, spending time in various European countries and the United States.

As part of her quest to make sense of the war she had grown up in, she decided to look at the war through the eyes of the Gypsies.

This launched a decade of research, including various time spent living with Gypsy -- or "Roma," as is the politically correct term -- groups in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Hungary in 2002 and 2003. While inclusion into Gypsy society is exceedingly rare, Meyer wooed the Roma with the Romani language she had picked up as a child and her status as a horse dealer, a professional considered to be aristocratic among the Gypsies.

Though Vermont may not be home to many gypsies, Meyer claims that Vermont had a profound impact not only on her life, but her decision to begin writing this novel.

During her traveling days she visited Andover; as she recounts, she looked out at the full moon over the green mountains, and for the first time thought back to the war and her time in the woods.

She was struck by the memories of when "the bombs stopped and nature resumed" and the closeness to nature that she felt during that time. Later, in 1974, Meyer decided to purchase a horse farm in Bondville, where she continues to live during part of the year.

In essence, her visit to Vermont was a catalyst for the writing process, when Meyer determined she "had to get the war out of my system."

The peacefulness of Vermont, and its likeness to the scenery of her early life, allowed her the perfect place to sort through her childhood memories. She says that she was surprised to find that she was not unhappy as a child throughout those years traveling through the woods.

To create the novel, she weaved the historical events of World War II in with her own memories of the Polish wilderness and her own interactions and research of the Gypsy culture.

Meyer's reading at Northshire will be much like her book itself -- she plans to weave in her biography, her research of Gypsies, and her connection to Vermont during her talk; not just reading from her book.

Meyer, like her book's lead character, Dosha, has history and depth that is essential to the story.

Sonia Meyer will talk about her new book "Dosha, Flight of the Russian Gypsies" at Northshire Bookstore on Thursday, Aug. 11, at 7 p.m. For information call 802-362-2200 or visit northshire.com.

Jennifer Mayer can be contacted through knorris@benningtonbanner.com.


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