Romani gypsies are an insular people, and little is known of their culture. They distrust outsiders and prefer to live among, work with, and marry within their own cultural circle. Enter Mikey Walsh (a pseudonym), one of the first brave souls to write a memoir about growing up in a gypsy camp. Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies gives the reader an inside look at Romani gypsies, who trace their origins to the Indian peninsula and through Eastern Europe. Gypsy men are masculine, tough and charismatic, living by their wits and usually finding work by convincing unsuspecting marks to part with their money. Gypsy women are expected to care for the home and the children and rarely interact with the men. While male gypsies are encouraged to have sexual encounters in the world with non-gypsy women, female gypsies are supposed to remain chaste until early marriage by age eighteen.
Revealing gypsy secrets can be a dangerous undertaking, and the author refuses to be photographed in order to preserve his true identity. Walsh grew up in the shadow of his father, a robust bare-knuckle fighting champion who tried to teach young Mikey to fight by knocking him across the room. As he grows older, Walsh realizes that he is gay, something that is so unacceptable to his father that he can only live his life in terror, hoping for some kind of escape.
The author reveals a bleak and dysfunctional childhood, but his determination and perseverance eventually pay off. Although some of the stories are harrowing, the author intersperses some humorous anecdotes involving some very quirky relatives. Walsh manages to find a way out of the gypsy life, get an education and tell the world his story. A companion biography, Gypsy Boy on the Run was published last year in the U.K. Through it all, he remains proud of his gypsy heritage. Gypsy Boy is a quick read, with a sympathetic and likeable narrator. Pick it up for a fascinating look into another culture. This title is recommended for those who enjoy hardscrabble memoirs like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt or Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.