________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 8 . . . . October 24, 2014


Dance of the Banished.

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch.
Toronto, ON: Pajama Press, 2014.
231 pp., trade pbk., $19.95.
ISBN 978-1-927485-65-1.

Subject Headings:
Canada-History-20th century-Juvenile fiction.
World War, 1914-1918-Canada, Internment camps-Juvenile fiction.
Canada-History-Immigration and emigration-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

***½ /4



Zeynep stood before me, her head titled in concern. "What's the matter?" . . .

"You know that Hagop Gregorian's taking my brother with him when he travels back to Canada tomorrow. Well, it won't just be Yousef going; Hagop is taking me too."

She gasped.

"Hagop's nephew was supposed to go, but you know he is sick," I said quickly. "It would have been a waste of an expensive ticket if someone didn't fill his place. Mama convinced Hagop to take me instead."

A wave of anger passed over Zeynep's face. "You promised we'd go together."

"How many years would it take us to save up for two tickets?" I asked. "Mama convinced Hagop to give me this ticket. Now I can go, take the job Hagop found for Krikor, and earn enough money for Mama's taxes and your ticket. It will be faster this way."

"But it's not --," began Zeynep. Then she stopped. She knew I was right. . . It was impossible to make money here. . . .

The men took turns working in another country for a few years - sometimes even decades - and sent their earnings home. The women could then pay the taxes and buy food for the children, but it was a lonely existence for everyone. . . That's why Zeynep and I had decided to leave for Canada together. But for all of our planning, we hadn't managed to save any money.

War has a way of changing people's plans. Dance of the Banished begins in 1913, the year before the outbreak of World War I. Zeynep and Ali live in Eyolmez, Anatolia, a region now part of the modern country of Turkey. However, they are not Turks; they are Alevi Kurds, practicing an ancient religion which incorporated elements of Islam, Christianity, and animism, and speakers of the language, Zaza. Also living in Anatolia are ethnic Armenians, believed, by some scholars, to be distantly related to the Alevi Kurds: "the distance between Alevis and Armenians is no thicker than the membrane of an onion." (p. 229) Predominantly Christian, the Armenians are enemies of the Ottoman Empire.

      In Part One of the novel, Ali leaves Zeynep with a journal; in it, she will write letters to be sent to him in Canada. He will do the same for her, and the book is told through both narration and their largely unreceived letters to each other. Zeynep is angry at Ali's desertion, and when her future mother-in-law finds an opportunity to make her an object of derision in their village community, Zeynep decides that, like Ali, "it's time for [her] to figure out [her] own escape." (p. 13) Her chance arrives in the form of American Protestant missionaries who are on their way to the hillside city of Harput where they run a school for orphans. Able to read and write, as well as being fluent in Armenian, Zeynep wants to work at the school, but a decidedly un-Christian missionary named Miss Anton rejects her because Zeynep is unwilling to give up the "false gods" of the Alevi faith. Undeterred, Zeynep leaves home in the dead of night and steals aboard the missionaries' wagon, arriving in Harput in the spring of 1914, months before World War I begins. Harput is just over the border from Russia, a long-standing enemy of Germany, and Turkey has been a long-standing ally of Germany. Turkey has been wracked by years of war in the Balkans, but it is certain that Turkey will enter this conflict, too. It is clear to Zeynep that, although she has temporarily escaped the horrors of the Young Turkish Revolutionary army that "is like a cloud of locusts, destroying everything in its path", (p. 46), her family members back in Eyolmez are in grave danger. Months later, Zeynep's Aunt Besee, Cousin Fatma, and Fatma's son arrive at the mission in Harput and give a full account of the invasion of their town: "they took over the entire village - both the Armenian and Alevi quarters - kicking people out of their own homes. The soldiers took everything." (p. 50) Most frightening of all, they took the Armenians, and no one seems to know where. Only one consolation exists, a letter from Ali, who is working in an iron foundry in Brantford, ON, saving his money, faithful in his love for her.

      Part Two of the book moves across the ocean, to Canada. World War I has made life difficult for immigrants from those countries now at war with Canada (Germans, Ukrainians and other Slavic peoples believed to "Austrian", and anyone who came from the Ottoman Empire). Ali, his brother, and 98 other Alevis are imprisoned, having been rounded up on false charges of planning to bomb Brantford's post office building. Confusion as to the Alevi Kurds' nationality (anyone who comes from Turkey must be a Turk, and, therefore, an enemy) leads to their being sent to an internment camp in Kapuskasing, ON, where their personal belongings are confiscated and burned, and the prisoners clear trees in the wilderness, building their own bunkhouses, enduring lives of incredible deprivation, and, of course, the paralyzing cold of the Canadian frontier.

      The eight-part novel then alternates in the telling of Zeynep and Ali's stories during those terrible years of the First World War. Zeynep suffers influenza, typhus, and continual fear for her family and her Armenian friends. The Armenians are starved, tortured, their homes vandalized and looted, rounded up and "marched . . . out into the desert to die" (p. 198) Zeynep becomes desperate in her attempt to save her Armenian Christian friends and that becomes her life's mission, even as she lives in hope of a reunion with her fiancé. As for Ali, life at camp is a "backbreaking and soul breaking" (p. 105) round of cutting down trees and building bunkhouses for more prisoners. Challenging the guards earns him a trip to Prison Island where a week of isolation can drive a person mad. Fortunately for him, the help of a pretty young Cree trapper ensures that he survives the ordeal, and although Ali is tempted to leave with Nadie and live with her people, he knows that escaping the camp will deny him any hope of becoming a Canadian citizen, and thus, the chance to bring Zeynep to Canada.

      In Dance of the Banished, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch continues to explore the plight of those to whom she dedicates the book: "for the forgotten ones." Ali and Zeynep are ordinary people whose lives are torn apart by the extraordinary complexities of international politics. The stories and struggles of thousands like them are often forgotten over the course of time. Although the novel is fiction, it is based on two significant events of World War I: Canada's establishment of 24 internment camps in which both immigrants and the Canadian-born were held as "enemy aliens" and forced to do heavy labour, and the Armenian genocide of 1915 which resulted in the death of more than one million Armenians. Furthermore, Skrypuch lives in Brantford, and when two local historians presented her with newspaper clippings detailing the round-up of "enemy aliens", she was intrigued, not the least because she is, herself, the granddaughter of a Ukrainian immigrant who was interned in a camp in Jasper, AB. She wondered, "What must it have been like for those 100 men from Brantford?" knowing the degree to which it affected her grandfather.

      The inside covers contain maps detailing the geography of both Zeynep and Ali's stories, and the "Author's Note" provides considerable background on the Alevi Kurds; both offer a better sense of the journeys undertaken by both main characters and of their cultural context. Although the novel's press release suggests that its intended audience is 12+, I think that it's really a story for somewhat older readers. As the story opens, Ali and Zeynep are teenagers, but, by its end, their life experiences have matured them far beyond their years. Their "letters" are rich in detail, perhaps more typical of a time when communication wasn't instant. The author does an excellent job of describing the hardships faced by both, including Zeynep's culture shock when living with the American missionaries and Ali's attempts to maintain his dignity in the face of the unwarranted cruelty of the camp guards. I am not certain that the inclusion of the character of Nadie, the Cree trapper who helps Ali to stay alive and sane during his time on Prison Island, was necessary. Yes, she was necessary to provide a reason for Ali's being sent to Prison Island, her culture has a similar view of nature as do the Alevi Kurds, and she is certainly a temptation to Ali's promise to be true to Zeynep, but, at times, her presence in the story seemed to be almost a distraction.

      However, this a minor issue in an otherwise very strong story. Dance of the Banished is definitely a worthwhile acquisition for middle and high school library collections; it will complement other works focusing on the story of young people affected by war-time, including The Diary of Anne Frank, provide a very accessible perspective on life in one of Canada's First World War Internment Camps, as well as introducing readers to the story of the Armenian genocide, an event with which many young Canadians might not be familiar.

Highly Recommended.

A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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ISSN 1201-9364
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