Some of the best books are also the most forgotten. Dobry by Monica Shannon is certainly among these, a simple tale of Bulgarian peasants embracing life with both arms and the spark of God burning deep inside them. The title character is a boy who grows to manhood in the course of the book, a boy raised by his stoic mother and vigorous grandfather, a boy who's inner need to create leads him into a life different from that of his farmer ancestors.
This isn't a complex story, but it isn't simplistic or plain. Shannon (who grew up surrounded by Bulgarian shepherds on her father's ranch) evokes a place and time no living reader can experience. Dobry's village is high in the mountains of Bulgaria, and the life of its citizens is filled with hard work, great joy and celebration, simple faith. A blend of gypsy, Balkan, and Greek Orthodox customs comes to vivid life as Shannon effortlessly describes Bulgarian peasant culture before the Technological Age.
According to his Grandfather, Dobry is destined to surpass even the greatness of his father, who died in an unnamed war. Roda, his mother, takes this to mean that Dobry will become a mighty man and farmer like his father, an assumption that seems to be confirmed by the boy's rapid growth and immense strength and durability. However, all Dobry wants is to sculpt, and when he takes a job watching the cattle of the village to pay for art supplies, Roda becomes moody and worried. Dobry's Christmas sculpture eventually changes her mind, and she blesses his desires to be an artist.
Shannon artfully captures human nature, but the great joy of reading this novel is the wealth of detail concerning Bulgarian peasant life. Roda bakes bread and keeps house; Grandfather plows fields, tells stories, dances, and plays his flute; the gypsy Bekir washes and re-silvers pots; the fortune-teller gypsy leads the Gypsy Bear from village to village so the animal can massage the peasants by walking on their backs. We taste paprika, smell garlic, see bright clothing, and hear the swishing of the scythe.
Because the peasants are Greek Orthodox, there's an element of piety throughout the story. Yet they're also superstitious and the descendents and neighbors of gypsies, so much of their folklore is less than Christian, depicting God as making mistakes, Noah forgetting to get animals on the ark, etc. You'll certainly want to talk about these attitudes with your kids, but they do add a sense of realism and no doubt reflect peasant attitudes of the time.
There's also a tendency toward romanticization, and Shannon clearly paints a more glorious picture of poor peasant life than most poor peasants would deem appropriate. Two responses come immediately to mind: first, Shannon was surrounded by Bulgarian peasants no doubt homesick for the land of their birth and who therefore doubtless spoke in more glowing terms, and second, the purity of life of these people naturally comes off as more desirable than our overly complex existence.
Few children's novels seem to follow their hero all the way to adulthood, thus assuring us that he or she ends up being an upstanding citizen. Dobry ends just as the hero is becoming a man, and we feel his sturdy peasant honesty and fidelity to custom and the pretty Neda are enough to carry him through the adventures looming before him. A simple yet lovely story, this is one that deserves to be read much more widely than it has been, and will be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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