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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Bagdasarian, Adam Forgotten Fire.Kroupa/Dk Ink, 2000. 273p
ISBN 0-7894-2627-7   $17.93    Gr. 7-12

Despite determination to the contrary, events in Cambodia and Rwanda suggest that horror at one genocide doesn't actually prevent another. "Never to forget" is a worthwhile philosophy, but forgetting is, in fact, shockingly possible, as the contemporary obscurity of the Armenian massacre demonstrates. Like David Kherdian before him (in The Road from Home, BCCB 1/80), Bagdasarian uses the story of a relative (in Bagdasarian's case, a great-uncle) to pull that part of history back from oblivion and bring it to vivid and, importantly, memorable life.

"In 1915 I was twelve years old, the youngest child of one of the richest and most respected Armenians in Turkey," Vahan Kenderian explains at the beginning of his narration; he's also a minority in a country that has previously massacred members of that ethnic minority, a country now engaged in a draining war that, despite Armenian representation among the military ranks, doesn't seem to be strengthening unity at home. Soon the abstract, distant threat to Armenians becomes local and concrete in a sequence of events that erodes Vahan's family to nothingness; his father is taken away; two of Vahan's older brothers are executed by gendarmes in the family garden; when the family is captured, his sister Armenouhi poisons herself rather than become the next rape victim of the Turks; a soldier smashes in Vahan's grandmother's head on a forced march. His mother and remaining sister insist that Vahan and his now only brother escape ("'I cannot watch them kill you,' my mother said. 'Please'"); when his brother dies of illness in the street, Vahan is left totally alone.

This panoply of losses is only the beginning of Vahan's odyssey. For two further years he struggles for existence, moving from temporary refuge to temporary refuge. Vahan serves the Turk who seized the Kenderian family's house and acts as a stableboy in his own residence; he stays twice with an Armenian classmate's family dealing with their own losses; he hooks up with a group of Turkish refugees, pretending to be deaf and dumb in order to avoid ostracism or worse for being Armenian; he's placed by an American mission with the Tashjians, another Armenian family, from where more tragedies drive him; he finally secures sea passage to Constantinople, where he finds apparent safety.

This is fiction, not biographical history, and the plainspoken, understated narrative focuses more on one individual viewpoint than the larger historical event of the Armenian massacre, but there is still plenty of information about this early Holocaust. The book is particularly deft at evoking the disorder and confusion of the situation (and, by extension, many wartime situations), with Vahan's travels driven by happenstance and unconscious inclination as much as by plan, since there's little certainty to plan around. More poignantly, the book also depicts Vahan's run of tragic connections: desperate for love, for a family, for a place among people, he repeatedly attaches to someone and loses her, from a fellow prisoner of the Turks (who dies after repeatedly being raped), to a girl among the Turkish refugees (whom he leaves behind after confessing his secret), to the teenaged Armenian mistress of the German consul (who dies after giving birth to the consul's son), to the motherly figure of Mrs. Tashjian (who dies of a stroke). Though the aggregate loss is stark and realistic, even more chilling is Bagdasarian's depiction of a more complicated relationship: it is through his connection with Selim Bey, the Turk who occupies Vahan's former home and provides Vahan with protection, that Vahan learns that acts of goodness do not prove someone incapable of evil.

Aside from its effective impact as an account of this particular piece of history, the narrative gives insight into the kind of minority/majority violence and chaos of a country in upheaval that are, alas, eternal; readers may find that a lot of their own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have similar stories to tell. The included map is unfortunately misleading and mistaken, but readers will be able to follow Vahan without it. A foreword gives some historical background, and a final chapter and epilogue provide more historical information as well as offering closure--after the war Vahan at last is reunited with his surviving sister. Since that sister is presumably Bagdasarian's grandmother, perhaps next Bagdasarian will write her story into literary memory.

-- Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor

Big Picture Image
January's Bulletin cover illustration by Liney Li
from Forgotten Fire,
Copyright 2000. Used by permission of Kroupa/DK Ink.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2001.