At the dawn of World War I, two brothers fight for survival in the midst of the Armenian genocide in Mekaelian’s debut novel.
In 1971, the Hagopian family gathers at a Chicago hospital after one of its elders has a stroke. Vartan Hagopian is a professor in his 70s who began his life in Armenia and now may end it in a hospital bed. A doctor tells the family that Vartan called out for a girl named Nadia during the attack that felled him. The name brings up painful memories for his slightly younger brother, Armen, who decides to tell the assembled family members the story of what he and his sibling lived through years ago. The sweeping tale begins in 1913 on the Hagopian family farm, located in the shadow of the Taurus Mountains along the Euphrates River. With the sultan of the Ottoman Empire deposed and the Young Turks in power, Armenians have been promised more equality under the law. Armen’s close-knit Armenian community lives alongside Turks and Kurds in relative peace. The future looks bright to teenage Armen and Vartan, who spend their evenings gazing at constellations. Slowly, though, it becomes clear that the government is overtaxing Armenians and brutally enforcing the practice with violence. Vartan and Armen’s father vows to stay, but as World War I breaks out, circumstances deteriorate, and Armen must find bravery far beyond his years. The most impressive aspect of Mekaelian’s historical tale is how it weaves together so many aspects of Armenian oppression into one family’s story without seeming implausible. The author carefully depicts Kharpert as a pastoral place that also becomes the setting of the worst things that humanity can offer, including forced assimilation, deportation, and outright slaughter. The sensible, memorable characters have an understandable dedication to their territory, and although the subject matter becomes quite bleak, the writing never does. The author shows Armen as a bright, humorous, hardworking teenager faced with unthinkable realities, and the wellsprings of courage that he draws from are seemingly limitless.
A tragic and beautiful story that manages to retain a wise and hopeful tone.