The Barefoot Queen
by Ildefonso Falcones
January, 1748: Caridad is a slave from a Cuban tobacco plantation who was being brought from Cuba by her master back to his home in Spain, where he planned to live out his days. He died on the ship voyage home, and Caridad was manumitted, given her papers, and advised by the priest on board the ship to seek out a specific religious sanctuary. Turned away there, she wandered for a while.
Milagros Carmona, a 13 year old gypsy girl, daughter of Ana Vega and Jose Carmona. Bright, beautiful and spirited, Milagros (and every other girl in the gypsy alley) had a crush on Pedro Garcia, the grandson of the man who had had Milagros' grandfather, Melchor Vega, sentenced to the galleys for 10 years - a feud not forgotten.
Father Joaquin, a white Spanish priest, was smitten by Milagros. His mission was to help and convert the gypsies (and sell tobacco products to finance this mission).
The first 50 pages or so of this book introduce us to all of these characters, without telling us when they will meet and how they are or will become intertwined. After about 50 pages, Melchor Vega, who has spent most of his time wandering about after being released from the galleys, finds Caridad gravely ill, and brings her home to the gypsy alley, leaving her in his room for Ana and Milagros to nurse back to health, admonishing them to keep the Negress until he returns. Caridad says little, but becomes friends with Milagros. To help earn her keep, and earn money for the Carmona/Vega family, Milagros and Caridad begin dancing and singing in a local inn. This continues on for some time, during which time, Milagros is betrothed by her father to a boy she dislikes. Life goes on, and ultimately, the gypsies are rounded up and imprisoned by the Spanish government. Caridad escapes this roundup, because she is very black, and not a gypsy; Milagros escapes because she was, at that time, exiled from the alley.
This is a very well written book about the time from 1748 through 1754, during which virtually all gypsies were imprisoned by the Spanish government, with no possibility of release without converting to Catholicism, and meeting certain other criteria. There is one main story, that of Caridad and Milagros, their friendship and their interactions with other. There are other subplots, including the enmity between the Vegas and the Garcias, the tobacco trade (legal and illegal), and Caridad's relationship with Melchor. This book is very long, and it's a slow read; don't start it unless you have an hour to meet all of the characters and begin to see where the story is going. It's not the type of book you can read in 10 minute intervals, but it is good enough to make you want to continue reading it. I was somewhat surprised to note that it was originally written in Spanish and translated into English; the translator is to be commended, because the verbiage never feels clumsy, as sometimes happens in translations. 3.5/5
Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. All opinions are my own.