Tuesday, July 20, 2010

My Home is Beyond the Mountains by Celia Barker Lottridge

Home Is Beyond The Mountains by Celia Barker Lottridge is a short historical novel for teens that deals with the Assyrian genocide of 1918. Since I’m doubtful most young people know much about this event, let alone who the Assyrians are, a little background information is in order.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Assyrian peoples lived in the south of Turkey and the northern part of Iran (then known as Persia) with a large population around Lake Urmieh, where this story is set. In 1914, the Ottoman empire declared war on the Allies and fought on the side of Germany. The British who were fighting Germany, gained the support of the Assyrian troops in exchange for the promise of a homeland. They wanted to keep the large oilfields which were part of Persia out of Turkish control. Initially, the Assyrians were successful in capturing these areas and this led the British to control much of Northern Persia.

At the same time the Russian army was intent on protecting itself from invasion by Turkey in the south. However, when Russian troops left the region, the Ottoman Empire saw a chance to obtain land with its mineral wealth and they invaded Persia, ignoring its neutral status in the war. Repeated invasions resulted in massacres of the Christian Assyrians by the Moslem Turks. One of the largest invasions occurred in the summer or 1918 and this resulted in many Christian Assyrians fleeing the area with the intent to reach the safety of the British army in further south in Persia. Many of these refugees were massacred or died of disease and hunger with about half reaching the safety of the British army.

The British eventually moved most of the Assyrian refugees to a large camp at Baquba, Iraq. The refugees stayed at Baquba for a time while a peace treaty was worked out with Turkey and then in 1921, the process of resettling them to their villages began. For many of the orphans, there were no villages, homes nor families to return to. Their families had been massacred and their once productive peaceful villages completely destroyed. This is the story of that time, told for young people, so that they might learn.

Author Celia Barker Lottride has more than a passing interest in the events related in her book. Her mother, Louise Shedd Barker, was the younger sister of Susan Shedd, director of the orphanage for Assyrian children at Hamadan, in 1922. Celia relied on historical accounts, the letters of her aunt Susan Shedd, and the oral history her mother Louise provided.

The story of the Assyrian flight to Hamadan in 1918 is told in the voice of Samira, a nine year old who leaves her fictional village of Ayna one summer day along with her mother, father, older brother Benyamin and her younger sister Maryam. Although they are somewhat organized, bringing food and rugs for their journey, as they suspected, tremendous difficulties and tragedy await them. Samira’s younger sister dies from fever. In the confusion of an attack by Turkish forces, Samira and her mother become separated from her father and brother Benyamin. Eventually, only Samira and her brother Benyamin make it to Hamadan. It is through Samira’s narrative that we try to understand the overwhelming loss she has suffered and the magnitude of coping with her situation. Samira befriends another young refugee, Anna and together they help one another over the next 5 years as they move to an orphanage in Baquba, Iraq and then as they take one step after another to reclaim their lives and journey home to their villages near Urmieh. Susan Shedd is portrayed as a remarkable heroine and an unusual woman. It is the indomitable Ms Shedd who organizes the children into “families” and who inspires them to work and plan for the journey home. Ms Shedd wins the respect of the refugees with her just and kind treatment of everyone and her no nonsense approach to those who tried to take advantage her situation or her being a woman.

For those who don’t know their history well enough (and this event isn’t in too many history books), Lottridge has provided a simple map and a concise explanation of the historical facts for young readers.

I enjoyed this book mainly because it focused on a historical event that isn’t often the subject of a novel. Although it’s not an overly exciting and dramatic read, it was interesting and I ended up doing a little research of my own afterwards. The characters were believable and each had their own way of dealing with their personal tragedy.

For more on the Assyrian and Armenian massacres please read The Flickering Light of Asia.



lynettecoleman said...

I am so thrilled to have found this book and am reading it now.
I have been researching my Assyrian Grandmother Esther's history - she was at the Hamadan refugee camp after fleeing from Geogtapa Urmieh with her family.
She met and married my English Grandfather in Hamadan and by the age of 17 she was having to get used to English life in Canterbury with her husband and year old son .
I have found it virtually impossible to get information about the Hamadan refugee camp and I have written many emails to various people/societies.
This book is the closest I believe I will get to learning about how things were for my Grandmother at that very young age.
She emigrated to Chicago in 1956 as a widow to join the rest of her family, marrying again in 1957 but sadly dying of cancer in 1962.
I was seven when she left so I never saw her again.
My Grandfather took many photos whilst in Persia and the jacket photos are very similar to some that he took.
I would love the opportunity to view more of Jane Montgomery's photos and hopefully learn more details about them.
Thankyou for posting this review, it is very well written.
I want my two teenage Grand daughters to read this book, I know they will enjoy it as much as I am.
When they have finished I will tell them more about my Grandmother Esther's story.

About me said...

Hi Lynette,
What a beautiful biblical name your grandmother had!
I found the topic of this book both fascinating and horrifying. I was happy to see that someone with a connection to this historical event was able to write a novel about it for young people to place the event in context and help them understand.