Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Road from Home by David Kherdian

The Road from Home tells the story of the author's mother's experience during the Armenian genocide. Told in Veron Dumehjian's voice, The Road from Home is a sanitized version of the 20th century's first genocide, the horribly successful attempt by the Ottoman Turks to eradicate all Armenians living in Turkey. Veron was the only survivor of her immediate family.

Veron lived a peaceful, happy life in Azizya with her family consisting of her mother and father, her younger sister,Yeghisapet, and her two younger brothers, Apkar and Harutiun. Her father Benyat Dumehjian,  was a wealthy, respected Armenian businessman who sold gum from poppies and also mohair. Veron was also blessed to have a large extended family; her Aunt Lousapere and Uncle Apraham (who was her favourite), her beloved grandma, her cousine Hrpsime, and many others.  Her days were filled with visiting her grandma, going to the Turkish baths, and playing with her sister Yeghi.

Although on the surface it seemed like the Armenians got along with the Turks, Veron knew that there had been trouble between the two groups. She was too young to understand what had happened in the years before - the previous massacres in the years before she was born. One day her family learned that they were to be deported. Her mother packed and her father brought the horse-drawn wagon from his mother's home so that they could leave their home. It was 1915 and the Armenians of Azizya were being forced on a march to an unknown destination.

Through the eyes of Veron, we follow her family on its death march through Konya, Adana and onto Meskene. In Meskene, with the unrelenting rain, comes cholera and then death to many of the Armenian Christians. Eventually, almost everyone in Veron's family becomes ill with cholera and when she awakes from the illness, only Veron, and her mother and father remain alive. After such tragedy, her mother, unable to cope with such terrible losses, also dies.

While waiting in Meskene, Veron's papa learns that the Turks mean to march the Armenians to Deir el Zor, a town in Syria. Her father realizes that if they go there, they will not survive, so they escape back into Turkey to a town called Birijik. Here Veron is left by her papa in the care of several Armenian "aunties". When her father dies, Veron begins working for two Turkish ladies so that she and her aunties can have money for food.

Eventually Veron travels to Aleppo to stay with relatives who plan to return to Afyon and bring her back to her grandmother in Azizya. These relatives, her father's cousin and his wife, have opened a coffee house in Aleppo and are waiting for the war (World War I) to end. However, Veron is treated more like a maid than a relative and is not allowed to attend school, something she dearly wants to do. A neighbour, Madame Markarian notices this situation and offers Veron a chance to go the Reverend Aharon's Orphanage, which she accepts. Once there, Veron who is now almost ten years old, has a somewhat settled life, making friends and taking lessons on Armenia and her heritage. She thrives at the orphanage.

Veron stays at the orphanage until she is almost twelve years old, eventually leaving with her relatives to return to Afyon. It is 1919 and for the first time in four years, Veron is reunited with her beloved grandmother. When Veron returns with her to Azizya, she finds her village much changed, like the Armenian survivors. Veron, like many of her fellow Armenians, can no longer trust the Turks, who insist they are not to blame for the mass murders and deportations.

Although the First World War is now ended, for the Armenians, war and genocide continue on. Greece occupied the city of Smyrna at the end of the war but they are, determined to keep Smyrna, which was given to them in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The Turkish National Army however wanted to establish a new country. They fought the Greeks, who ultimately lost what was called the Greco-Turkish War.

The lower part of the city where Veron lived was Christian while the upper part was occupied by the Turks. But for Veron and her fellow Armenians, it means only more suffering. When the Greeks lose the war and the Armenians are driven literally to the sea by the Turkish army of Kemal Ataturk, Veron realizes her only chance at life will be to flee to Greece and the European continent. After arriving in Greece, Veron finds an unexpected offer that promises freedom, safety, and a future.

Despite the fact that this event, the genocide of Armenian Christians, is told from the viewpoint of a young girl with her innocent understanding, takes away none of the horror and repulsion at what happened. At times Veron's recounting is simple but in tune with how a young, innocent girl may well have barely understood the events happening around her. Kherdian does an excellent job of portraying the immense fortitude, courage, and perseverance of his mother, Veron, as she struggled to survival in a brutal time, while coping with the loss of so many of her family.

David Kherdian spends some time telling readers about what his mother's life was like in Azizya before the deportation and genocide. We are given a picture of a mostly peaceful co-existence between Turks and Armenians, despite the relatively recent mass murders. The Armenians were generally well educated and cultured and contributed greatly to society in the Ottoman Empire. There are some lovely descriptions of wonderful family life that included extended family. All this was lost, through the unprovoked aggression of the Muslim Turks.

My only complaint about this novel is that it was difficult to keep track of just how old Veron was as the years passed by. The chapters are labeled by years, following events chronologically as one would expect. It would also have helped if some of the events occurring in this part of the world during the time period, were explained to the reader in more depth - for example, the British blocking the ports and taking the grain to feed their troops. and the Greco-Turkish War. However, given that the narration is first person and that person is a young child, we experience these events as Veron herself likely would have - not really knowing much of what was happening.

There's an excellent author's note that provides some historical background for what happens in the book, as well as good map showing Veron's journeys through Turkey and ultimately to Greece. There are also two telling quotes at the front of the book, one of which indicates that, despite Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, the Ottoman Turks knew exactly what they were about to undertake in 1915. The fact that the international community chose to ignore the genocide and that the world collectively has a short memory for such things, later on, convinced Hitler that likely no one would help the Jews should they be targeted for mass murder. He was mostly right.

This is an excellent biography that is well worth reading by those interested in the 20th century but also recommended for all of us. "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."

Book Details:
The Road From Home by David Kherdian
New York: Greenwillow Books         1979


Jeffrey Haste said...

Dear LibrisNotes,
Hi, I am jeff Haste and I am in touch with David Kherdian who noticed the misspelling of his mothers name (masculine). He may be able to leave a comment if he has an account. I direct a small press that will publish a New & Selected collection of his poetry this year.
Nice to see your blog. You can visit the press website but now news is up yet. I did post your blog link to the press Facebook page and visited your interest page.
Take good care.

About me said...

My apologies for the many misspellings. Very bad form! Please convey to Mr. Kherdian that I have (hopefully) corrected all of them. I very much enjoyed his book and I feel it's an important work. I learned about his book from one of Marsha Skrypuch's books. Marsha is a local writer who has written on the Armenian genocide.