A freelance journalist debuts with an account of her long effort to retrace the journey of her grandfather, who improbably survived the vast massacre of Armenians during World War I.
Stepan Miskjian’s survival—a story of astonishing determination, luck, and horror—is beyond improbable. At many moments in this swift narrative, readers will be certain he will die—from the elements, starvation, thirst, exposure, or execution. But he doesn’t. MacKeen was fortunate to discover the original accounts (and notes) her grandfather had made; she intercuts her rewriting of those events with her own journey to the region. As the text moves along, readers will find themselves drawn into the whirlpool of events, soon forgetting the author’s presence. Her stories of her own travels in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, told in chapters alternating with her grandfather’s story, are moving at times, especially when she discovers places and people that were key in her ancestor’s grim story. She is also frightened much of the time—shadowed by police (she coopts one pair by buying them sodas)—uncertain of the language and of the wisdom of revealing her true purpose and ancestry. At times, she leaves us hanging at the end of a chapter, but this is generally ineffective: we know she survived. MacKeen occasionally inserts information from the many books she read on the subject—the words of American diplomat Henry Morgenthau appear a few times—and is not hesitant to criticize. She’s disappointed, for example, that President Barack Obama did not use the word “genocide” in a public statement about the deaths of Armenians—which numbered perhaps 1.2 million.
Powerful, terrible stories about what people are willing to do to other people—but leavened with hope and, ultimately, forgiveness.