Burning is a tense, powerfully written story of the difficult choices tied to freedom and a fascinating look into Gypsy lives in America. I didn’t even realize they were such a separate culture inside of America. Lala is one of the traditional Roma, as they call themselves, where marriages are still arranged and even involve a bride price based on a girl’s earning potential – how good a fortune teller she is.
One thing that impressed me about this book is that it didn’t paint the Gypsies in a one-sided way. Yes, there are very confining rules for Gypsy women. But Burning also shows how loving and close-knit Gypsy extended families are, and how even in very traditional families, rules have loosened to the extent that if a girl really doesn’t want who her father chooses for her, she can refuse and her family will accept her decision. However, there are other things they will not accept or forgive and they will completely sever the bonds of family if certain lines are crossed.
The book is written from two points of view – Ben, your average American high school boy, and Lala, a gypsy girl, about to enter into a an arranged marriage on her 18th birthday.
Lala’s voice is distinct: analytical and thoughtful and a touch formal, wonderfully different from the all-too-common snarky, quippy voice I often encounter from the female teenage characters in most Young Adult books. Lala's voice:
And then came a wave of something that at first I did not have a word for. I liked the sensation, and I considered carefully how to name it. Ah. It was power. I felt powerful.
Ben’s voice grew on me, too. Here’s a taste of his voice as he talks about his family:
My mom liked to tell me and James about Pops back in the early days, back before his years in the gypsum dust had turned his skin chalky and pale, back when he was robust and strong, back before lines were carved in his face like a road map to nowhere.
But I craved Lala; she was so different, and yet so relatable too.
In her first chapter she muses over all the old-fashioned and repressive rules of her family -not condemning them, just comparing them in light of the books she reads in secret on her smart phone. She’s fascinated by Holden Caufield in the book Catcher in the Rye. Here she talks about Holden:
The books begins when he is at a school far away from his family – a sleepaway school. Right there we know that something is wrong. What kind of a family sends its children away for an education? My people, we understand that the best education is gained from living and working with the family.
Lala only went to public school until she was 11. She has been confined to her family’s world since then – except for the books she reads. Though I’ve read similar stories where books have opened new possibilities and new worlds to people, for some reason this story really hit me more deeply just how powerful books are. How they can be dangerous to cultures that try restrict their people.
Lala loves her family, deeply, and counts her herself doubly blessed to have two sisters: one older and one younger. I loved the bonds she had with her sisters Violeta and Anelie.
But when she first sets eyes on Ben, it’s like a “love at first sight” moment, for both of them: but that isn’t the right term. It’s more like a catalyst moment. I do believe in such a thing that we call “love at first sight” but I also believe it’s both more simple and more complex than that phrase implies, and Burning captures that dynamic so well:
This boy, who was clearly full of reticence and did not want to be here seemed to me like the answer to a question I had not known I’d asked.
Deep inside me, it was as if something was waking and stretching its limbs. Some secret dragon hibernating in my core had been stirred by the presence of this boy.
And yet later she hesitates about Ben (this gave me shivers! I’ve often felt this way about sharing my heart, too):
They are not like us; they do not understand the bonds that tie my people together, unseen but potent bonds of tradition, story, and shared suffering. They do not know our hearts; I had always believed that they could not know our hearts, even if we tried to share them.
Lala is a very good fortuneteller, but there’s nothing magic about it: she’s like Sherlock Holmes, observant, seeing everything about people, and able to connect the dots between all the clues. Some of my favorite parts were when she’d meet someone new –Ben and his friends Pete and Hog Boy , even his brother James – and how she’d analyze them, little details of their appearance and their conversation and body language.
As always my features were smooth: unreadable. My job was twofold: to read every secret on the faces of my client, and to hide all of mine deep within.
Amazing how much tension and rich storytelling can come from something as simple as Lala’s gypsy family driving into town to buy ice cream from a small town store and encountering the locals. Lala’s little sister prompts her “what do you want?” – referring to the ice cream flavors, but of course also referring to so much more.
“You think you see things clearly, but you do not see deeply, Ben. The same is with the way you think about your brother, and your parents' situation also. You see only how things appear to be from where you are sitting. But rarely is an answer so easy, so one-sided.”
Characters: Lala and Ben were so alive, so real, but all the characters were well done. Ben’s little brother James, and their father:
I decided I liked this man – generous, slow to make judgments and gentle with his boys. He ruffled James’s hair as he passed, drawing a steely-eyed gaze from his younger son, who quickly repaired the damage to his hair with a pass of his hand.
It’s a testament to how well the other characters were done that I was able to tolerate Ben’s friend Hog Boy – not even Ben could tolerate him at times, as he comments that Hog Boy "sees the world through swine-colored glasses, that’s for sure.” Thank goodness Hog Boy goes through some self-improvement as the story progresses – well, maybe that’s being too kind, but at least he had a bit of character arc.
Setting: The desert, the playa, the quarry, the wild horses: so well done. I feel like I’ve just a spent a week in the desert. The Burning Man festival only had one scene near the end, but it was very well done, too without being too explicit.
Plot: There was some question about what Lala and Ben would decide to do in the end after their lives collided. Another thing I liked, related to the plot, were several Gypsy tales that were woven into the story, and this poem from Burning Man:
From this day forward,
You shall not walk alone.
My heart will be your shelter,
And my arms will be your home.
Pacing: I read the whole book in just two intense settings, the kind where when your family asks you something you just wave your hand “not now, not now!” Granted, it wasn't a long book, only 209 pages. But it was just the right length for it story, if that makes sense.
Dialogue/Voice: Loved, loved, loved Lala’s voice. So different! Such a refreshing change! I LOVED what a thinker and observer she was, instead of the typical female heroine driven by her emotions (not that she didn’t have emotions, don’t get me wrong: she was very passionate). Ben was a great contrast to Lala.
Personal appeal: 3 out of 5 stars. Loved the premise and the literary feel, but didn't love all the swearing and vulgar language.
Margo’s literary scale where 1 is “merely entertaining” and 5 is “really made me think”: 4 out of 5. The symbology and themes were done so well. Here's a example of the symbology woven together with theme that was really well done:
“When I first came here, I hated the desert,” I told him. “It seemed to me that there was not much to see, and what little there was held no mystery. But today you are showing me places I could not have guessed existed.”
Most likely he thought I meant this quarry, which was true enough, but I spoke also of the way I felt. It had been like a desert – barren, flat, scorched dry – but it seemed to me now that there could be secret, hidden places anywhere, unexpected oases just beyond the horizon.
I loved learning about Gypsy culture and their perceptions and their deep family bonds, and the clash of their traditional ways with American culture: the ugly and good sides of both. Here’s my favorite part of the whole story:
My people do not have just one name. Of course we each have the name our families and friends know us by, and often we have another name, one by which the gazhe (Americans) know us. But there is another name – a first name, whispered by a mother into her baby’s ear, a name that no one else will ever know.
Lala’s secret name is perfect.