Every year, on April 24th, Armenians around the world commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Between 1915 and 1917, the government of the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey) ordered the systematic deportation and extermination of hundreds of thousands of its Armenian residents, as well as other Christian ethnic groups. Although Turkey still denies that the events of those years constitute genocide, estimates suggest that as many as 1.5 million people perished as a result of death marches or outright massacres.
I am half-Armenian from my mother’s side and while I’ve always been aware of the Armenian Genocide, I knew little of the facts. So when an email describing The Hundred-Year Walk by Dawn Anahid MacKeen popped up in my inbox, I jumped at the chance to read it.
The Hundred-Year Walk is a true account of Dawn’s grandfather’s, Stepan Miskjian, life before, during and after the Armenian genocide, as well as Dawn’s own journey to Turkey and Syria to walk in her grandfather’s footsteps.
Scrappy and determined, Stepan hustled every day, looking for new and better ways to support his mother and sisters after the death of his father. It was this go-getter attitude that served him well as World War I swept across the Ottoman Empire and the mass deportations and killings of the Armenian population began.
Separated from his beloved family, Stepan was driven along with thousands of others from one refugee camp to another, witnessing unspeakable horrors everywhere he went. Stepan and his fellow Armenians were packed in trains like cattle or else forced on desert marches, many dropping dead along the way. They were forced to live in squalid conditions with little or no shelter; they were starved and beaten into submission, until they had nothing to live for. Through it all, Stepan kept going, buoyed in large part by the hope that some day he’d see his family again. Close to death many times, he survived hunger and sickness and attempted daring escapes, at one point walking across the desert for six days with nothing more than two cups of water.
A hundred years later, Dawn made it her mission to travel to Turkey and Syria and visit the places her grandfather was likely in as he struggled to live another day. Over and over again, Dawn marveled at the fact that Stepan survived in certain environments despite his already weakened state when she – a healthy, well-fed individual – had difficulty tolerating them for short periods of time. More importantly, her journey allowed her a better understanding of the conflict that in some ways is still alive today, and a closeness to the man who made her life possible through his perseverance.
Dawn MacKeen is a wonderful writer and her dedication to translating Stepan’s journals and bringing his experiences to life was apparent in every page. Her writing was fluid and engaging; if not for the sections where she described her own travels, I felt as if I could have been reading a novel. Sadly, in this case, truth is crazier and more macabre than any fiction I’ve ever read.
Given its subject matter, The Hundred-Year Walk was a difficult read for me and I think it will be a difficult one for many readers, even those who don’t have a personal connection to the Armenian Genocide. The evil some human beings were (and are) capable of is heartbreaking and difficult to comprehend. It’s no wonder that just over 20 years later Germany – an Ottoman ally during World War I – did not see any impediments to destroying its Jewish population. If the world knew of, and ignored, the murder of millions of Armenians, who was going to stop them from carrying out their agenda?
That said, The Hundred-Year Walk is also an important and very worthwhile book. I’d be remiss not to mention that Stepan’s story is also one of human kindness in the face of evil, of the people he encountered along the way who stood up and said or did something despite the danger to themselves. Today, with faces of evil strewn across every newspaper page and TV screen, we could use more people like that.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.