Sitting down to write this review four months after reading the book to my then 6y5m son the title did not spark any recognition in me. I actually thought that we had inadvertently skipped the book but my son, after seeing the cover, insisted we had read it. Still unsure and ready to start a new book anyway, I started to read it at bedtime but quickly realized indeed, the kid was right.
Dobry, his mother, Roda, and his grandfather are a Bulgarian peasant family. The family goes to church for Christmas and Grandpa makes a lot of references to God and his creation. They are a hard-working family who are very involved with their community. They are friendly with everyone from the mayor to the shepherd boy. Dobry spends a lot of time with a little girl (near his age) named Neda. She and her father are like family to Dobry and his family. While they do have moments of squabbles and sticking their tongues out at each other, in general theirs is a very encouraging relationship. Dobry often teaches her new skills and together they often dream about the future.
Dobry's grandfather is known everywhere for the fabulous stories he tells. Neda says he, "is as full of stories as a pine tree is full of cones." (p. 104) One of the characters he tells about is Hadutzi-dare, a mean-hearted giant who terrorizes many villages and fights the Black Arab. It reads a bit like a myth but the moral is not obvious. The rest of grandfather's stories are much more straightforward.
Dobry shows an inclination towards art - something that doesn't immediately sit well with his family. "His mother said nothing. Her patience was only surpassed by that of Mother Nature - with whom she shared the same intentness of purpose - but a deep placidity as natural to her as breathing... . ...'Well, children grow out of more things than their clothes. Dobry will grow out of this picture making. A boy is a shirt woven, cut out, but not made up.' " (p. 81)
There is a tradition of nearby gypsies bringing a bear into the village to walk on the mens' backs and give them all massages once a year. It's a very happy, festive day. On this day a gypsy woman reads Dobry's and Neda's palms. The fortune is vague, "The great wind finds resistance, The great river finds bowlders on its way, The great bird finds few comrades." (p. 94) The kids did not put any stock in, or even understand the gypsy, "but they loved the sound of the words and the sound of her voice as she intoned them." (p. 95)
Dobry does not really enjoy working the fields with his grandfather and on page 97 we learn that four years ago (so this is about five years into the story) Dobry traded places with Asan, the town shepherd. Roda had not liked the idea but Grandpa talked her into it. "When he was at home Dobry was aware if it - the disapproval in his mother's voice, the loneliness and disappointment in her heart - but away from it he could forget, and all his daylight hours were spent far away in a world of his own choosing." (p. 98)
Even after four years Roda is still unhappy with the arrangement. She worries that Dobry will have a hard life on the path he is choosing (shepherd / artist). As a mom with older kids out making their own choices I can certainly identify! Grandfather has some really good insight for Roda and myself (and undoubtedly a lot of other parents too). he tells her that everyone is an individual, one type of tree dies where another one grows. "What seems an easier life to you would seem a harder one to Dobry. He needs to draw, to paint, ... ." (p. 108) Grandpa believes, "if a boy is something, it doesn't matter what kind of work he chooses. if the boy is strong, live and good yeast, the work he chooses will rise, become great, nourish everybody. Dobry has guts - and brains. if he makes mistakes he will get out of them. ... Bring up a boy to use his hands and brain and heart, leave his guts in him, and then let him alone!" (p. 110)
One New year's eve, when presents are traditionally exchanged, Roda gives Dobry all the gold coins that had been a part of her wedding dress - so he can go study art. Grandpa gives him money too. He will go after his annual bath in the spring - another occasion for the gypsy bear to come to town. The ending was abrupt. It was a happy, hopeful ending but it just seemed sudden. It was logical, he has bathed and is ready for his journey to art school so Roda won't let him do anything to get dirty. he stops by Neda's and talks about the berries they will eat at their betrothal feast. Neda is almost overcome with sadness at his leaving and fear that he'll change too much. He assures her that is why he's going and why he'll come back. THE END - no riding off into the sunset, no epilogue, just an assumed Happily Ever After.