Review: ‘Dance of the Banished,’ a story of WWI Turkish ethnic cleansing and Canadian hysteria

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Dance of the Banished, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, Pajama Press (February 1, 2015), young adult, 288 pages. In her sixth book set during the Armenian Genocide, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s Dance of the Banished brings young adult readers a heartbreaking account of the World War I-era ethnic cleansing in the Anatolia region of Turkey and the Canadian paranoia that sent thousands of purportedly dangerous immigrants to internment camps.

banishedArmenians, who are traditionally Christian, and Alevi Kurds, whose religious views differ from those of Sunni Kurds, predate the arrival of the Turks in Anatolia. The discord brought into the region by the Turks is a centuries-old fight. “Dance of the Banished” begins in 1913 on the brink of Turkey’s entry into World War I on the side of the Central Powers with the story of two betrothed Alevi Kurds who are soon separated by hard times and a very wide ocean.

Ali chooses to go to Ontario, Canada where jobs are available. He plans to send money home to his family and to save enough to ultimately pay for Zeynep’s passage to Ontario. She views his departure as a betrayal, as practical as it may be, and wonders if they will ever see each other again.

Subsequently, Zeynep also leaves town to work in a hospital in a Harput, a city between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where she is swept up into the horror of revolution, war and poverty. Ali begins work in Canada only to find himself rounded up on trumped up charges and sent to a prison camp where he’s pressed into service at a minimal age. Both wonder why they don’t hear from each other.

The book’s sections, which alternate between Zeynep’s and Ali’s stories, are presented as journal entries written in the form of letters to each other. In time, she learns that the Armenians who have been allegedly drafted to fight in World War I are being exterminated and he learns that he is part a growing group of imprisoned Ukrainians, Turks and others who came to Canada for freedom only to end up without it.

The power of this novel comes in part from the age of its two protagonists and how their view of the world is forced to change. Young and in love, they see life through a different lens than their parents and grandparents. While their focus is on being reunited with each other, their journal entries begin with typical day-to-day activities and then change from initial disbelief at the persecution around them into grim accounts of their own involvement and means of survival.

Their growing horror and their continuing hope and perseverance during the cruel years of 1913 to 1917 combine for a poignant love story and a stark account of genocide close up and very personal.

The book is enhanced by the inclusion of internment camp pictures and an author’s note about the story’s historical background.

–Malcolm Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the upcoming novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

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