Background: This title arrived on my doorstop a month or so ago, a review title from Fitzhenry and Whiteside that I hadn't requested. But once I read the blurb on the back of the book, and learned that it was set during the Armenian genocide, I knew that I had to read it. The Armenian genocide was the systematic destruction of more than a million Armenians by the Turkish government during World War I. Mheir, the person I share my life with, is Armenian. He immigrated to America when he was a baby, and is of 100% Armenian descent. I've known Mheir and his family for more than 20 years. And I know how raw the wounds from the Armenian genocide remain for their community even now, more than 90 years after the events in Turkey took place. (For more detail about the Armenian genocide, see this Wikipedia entry and references therein.)
I, who grew up safe and Protestant in the US, can't fully comprehend the way the Armenian people feel about the genocide. But I comprehend enough that this title was difficult for me to read. There's a line early in the book where an Armenian young man, in hiding, pretending to be an Arab, is afraid that he's been found out. The book says:
"But if the soldier knew, Kevork was no longer safe.
But was anywhere safe when you were Armenian?"
And I pictured the people I know who are Armenian. The notion of them not being safe, of them being taken from their homes and sent to march across the desert, or worse... Just because of who they are... It's unfathomable. But it happened. As it happened later, and even more horrifically in scope, to the Jewish people. I've read various books about the Holocaust, of course, but Daughter of War was even tougher for me to read, because I hold so many Armenians close to my heart.
Thus I can make no claim that the review that follows is objective. There are points where I suspect that the book crosses the fine line from story with a historical background into history lesson. But I'm not certain, and I found it compelling anyway.
Review: Daughter of War, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, is the fictional story of two young lovers who are separated by the Turks during the Armenian genocide in World War I. Marta and Kevork were orphaned during a massacre of Armenians in the Adana province of Turkey in 1909. They spent the next six years at a German orphanage in Marash, where they fell in love and became betrothed. In 1915, however, as teenagers, they were deemed adult Armenians, and forcibly deported into the desert, expected to die. As the story begins a year later, Kevork has been rescued by a tribe of Arabs, and is living in Aleppo, Syria, disguised as an Arab shoemaker, living in constant fear.
Marta has been "rescued" by a Turkish family, taken as the involuntary Third Wife of a violent man. Her pregnancy by the man, however, causes the man's First Wife to send her away, back to the orphanage in Marash. The orphanage isn't a safe place for adult Armenians, however, and her presence puts everyone there in danger. In the story that follows, Marta and Kevork struggle to survive, and wonder if they will ever find their way back to one another. An essential map at the front of the book documents Marta and Kevork's travels, and a historical note gives some broader context.
This is a darkly disturbing book, one that doesn't flinch from describing the grim details of massacres and starvations, hatreds and betrayals. The worst of this is alluded to in flashbacks, however, making the suffering a bit easier for the reader to cope with. The brutality of the soldiers and the horrors of death and disease contrast with the innate resilience displayed by both Marta and Kevork, and the bravery of various non-Armenians who help them. It's not an easy read, but parts of it are uplifting. There are even a couple of scenes that demonstrate humor, albeit in a bit of a dark context.
Daughter of War manages to convey quite a bit of information about what was going on in Turkey and Syria between 1915 and 1918. Turks caught hiding Armenians could be killed, and their homes burned to the ground. The German orphanages were eventually shut down, because they were an embarrassment, because there weren't supposed to be orphans to save. Many people were killed by starvation, because the use of guns would have required too many bullets. After the war, women still needed to be rescued from the Turkish homes, where they had been kept as concubines, though many feared separation from their children. Many Armenian orphans were adopted and never rescued, and ended up raised as Turks, perhaps never even knowing that they were Armenian. The war wasn't kind to the Turkish foot soldiers, either, and the book has a measure of sympathy for them, too.
Most of this information is conveyed through Kevork and Marta's eyes (mostly Kevork's, as he spends more time on the road), lending it an immediacy that makes the book feel like a true story. This is the kind of book that seeps into your consciousness, and makes the comfortable room around you lose focus. I read the second half of the book in one sitting, then looked at the clock, astonished that 80 minutes had gone by, and I was still in my living room. The end brought tears to my eyes. Marta and Kevork are strong, resourceful characters. I'll remember them, along with an intrepid Turkish boy named Zeki, and an ethereal orphan named Angele, as though they were people I knew.
This is not a book for young readers. But I do recommend it for high school students and above. It would make an excellent addition to reading material on the Holocaust, as the event in Turkey were precursors to those in Germany, with both similarities and differences. It's also a love story, and setting it against one of the bleakest backdrops imaginable makes the love story that much more pure. And for those who like to know such things ahead of time, the book does end on a note of hope. It's one that I will read again, and share with others.
Publisher: Fitzhenry and Whiteside
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: A review copy from the publisher
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.