An epic tale of one man’s courage in the face of genocide and his granddaughter’s quest to tell his story
An epic tale of one man’s courage in the face of genocide and his granddaughter’s quest to tell his story
In the heart of the Ottoman Empire as World War I rages, Stepan Miskjian’s world becomes undone. He is separated from his family as they are swept up in the government’s mass deportation of Armenians into internment camps. Gradually realizing the unthinkable—that they are all being driven to their deaths—he fights, through starvation and thirst, not to lose hope. Just before killing squads slaughter his caravan during a forced desert march, Stepan manages to escape, making a perilous six-day trek to the Euphrates River carrying nothing more than two cups of water and one gold coin. In his desperate bid for survival, Stepan dons disguises, outmaneuvers gendarmes, and, when he least expects it, encounters the miraculous kindness of strangers.
The Hundred-Year Walk alternates between Stepan’s saga and another journey that takes place a century later, after his family discovers his long-lost journals. Reading this rare firsthand account, his granddaughter Dawn MacKeen finds herself first drawn into the colorful bazaars before the war and then into the horrors Stepan later endured. Inspired to retrace his steps, she sets out alone to Turkey and Syria, shadowing her resourceful, resilient grandfather across a landscape still rife with tension. With his journals guiding her, she grows ever closer to the man she barely knew as a child. Their shared story is a testament to family, to home, and to the power of the human spirit to transcend the barriers of religion, ethnicity, and even time itself.
The Lost World
For as long as I can remember, my mother has been talking to her dead parents. Growing up, I would find her in the kitchen, locked in conversation with Mama and Baba. At the sink, her hands scrubbing a dish, her voice a murmur. So it was no surprise when, in the summer of 2006, I stumbled on her again like this. It had been just a few weeks since I had moved back into my childhood home, and there I was in the doorway trying to eavesdrop, just like I had back in grade school. Only now I was thirty-five. I couldn’t quite make out her words, drowned as they were by running water and the clank of Corelle plates. Oblivious to me standing there, my mother continued to shake her cropped brown bob back and forth, moving her lips furtively.
“Inch ge medadzes,” she said, shaking her head, the Armenian words sounding like gibberish to me.
“Are you talking to them again?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, her mood perennially upbeat. “I ask them for advice, and they always give it to me. They are my spirit guides, Dawn. They should be yours too!”
I rolled my eyes and we both laughed, not taking ourselves too seriously. In the weeks since I’d left my bustling life in New York and returned to the Los Angeles house where I had been raised, my mother’s otherworldly talks had become part of my universe again. I’d forgotten the never-ending surprises of life with my small but plucky mother, Anahid. Spontaneous and excitable, she could transform a drab doctor’s office or a corner diner into a party, just by raising her arms and breaking into dance.
My father, Jim, and I would remark that she was the last person you’d expect to be a probation officer. She was unflinchingly positive about the human capacity for goodness, allowing the petty criminals she supervised to get away with nearly anything on her watch. She’d devoted her life to helping people. Not only her clients, but also Armenian immigrants unfamiliar with the customs of the United States.
Our phone was constantly ringing. She’d taught my American father and me just enough of the language for us to say “One moment” in Armenian— Meg vayrgean — when people called and started prattling away about needing a ride to the doctor, the lawyer, or the green-card office.
Despite the comfort of being back in my roomy, Spanish-style home, the initial excitement had worn off. Huddled under my flower-print bedspread, surrounded by high-school soccer trophies and my homecoming-princess tiara, I felt like a character in a dark comedy about an aging prom queen who returns to her childhood home after flaming out in the big city. By the hour, my life in New York felt farther away — my morning runs through snowy Central Park before work; my deadline hustle to file yet another health-care story at my magazine job; my race to meet friends after work for a wine-fueled late dinner somewhere dark and candlelit. For years, my life in New York had felt like a sprint in a marathon that I never wanted to stop. It was what I craved; it was what I thought I needed; it was why I’d left my home and moved across the country in the first place.
But shortly after my birthday the previous February, something had changed. I’d never paid much attention to my mother’s calls to come home, but suddenly I couldn’t ignore her anymore. Perhaps it was her advanced age (she was then seventy-eight). Or maybe it was my own realization that, as a reporter, I was spending my life telling other people’s stories and ignoring my own family’s incredible one.
Because my grandfather had died when I was a toddler, what I knew about him was mostly family legend. Countless times, I had heard the dramatic tales from my mother of how her father, Stepan Miskjian, had wandered in the desert of what is now Syria, how he had staggered across it for a week on nothing but two cups of water. How he had led a group of Armenians to safety, away from the Turks who wanted to kill them.
She’d repeat this tale on loop. As she saw it, any occasion — during a morning bowl of Cheerios or after a piece of birthday cake — was the right time to recount her father’s near-death experience.
His story had truly haunted her childhood too, when days would begin and end with Baba in tears as he retold what he’d witnessed. He made a new home for his family in Spanish Harlem, but they were so poor she slept in a hammock. Perhaps looking into his daughter’s innocent face reminded him of the thousands of children in their orphan uniforms who had paraded past him in the camps on their way to be slaughtered. He had lost almost everything in the ethnic cleansing; all he had was his story. This was our family’s heirloom, our most precious bequest, and it was inherited by every subsequent generation — along with the burden of telling it again.
Still, as a kid, I retained nothing from the much-repeated saga but the single detail that he’d drunk his own urine to survive in the desert. Repulsed, I’d always ask, “Why would anyone do that?”
“It’s because he was Armenian and faced very difficult times,” my mother would explain. “It’s all here.”
And then she’d pull out two small booklets published by an Armenian press in the 1960s: her dad’s firsthand account of his survival, focused on the period when he was fleeing the Turks in Mesopotamia.
I would stare at the hundreds of pages of Indo-European script, unable to cross the language barrier and uncover the secrets of his memoir, a narrative he’d begun writing in the 1930s and continued working on for the rest of his life.
My mother had spent many years attempting to translate these booklets into English. This wasn’t just her personal desire to share our family’s trials but part of an attempt to educate the world and ensure that ethnic cleansing never happened again. Her father’s story was the story of the forgotten genocide. The trains stuffed with people, the death marches, the internment camps. All were familiar horrors to me, to my generation, but the images I’d seen were from the Holocaust of World War II. As the Jews would be, the Armenian minority had been demonized as a threat to society. The Ottoman Empire used the global tumult of World War I as a cover. The majority of the two million Ottoman Armenians had been forced from their homes and deported to barren regions they had seen only on maps, if at all.
From 1915 to 1918, an estimated 1,200,000 Armenians perished. Those who managed to stay alive were scattered across the globe. My mother’s surviving aunts and uncles lived in Turkey, France, and the
United States—something I had previously thought was a little glamorous. After learning more about my family history, I found it heartbreaking. Entire families had been lost or severed from one another. Stateless, some of them drifting like embers after a fire, the rest just ashes. Adolf Hitler, before his invasion of Poland in September 1939, said: “Kill without pity or mercy. Who still talks nowadays of the ...
A "Must read" from the New York Post
"MacKeen weaves multiple historical sources for corroboration and context, but her main material, Stepan’s unpublished memoir, lands the emotional punch of personal narrative. MacKeen’s added perspective is what makes this book though. A moving portrait of one family’s relationship to the past that offers surprising hope for reconciliation."
—Toronto Globe & Mail
"MacKeen doesn’t shirk from recounting the grisly details of genocide, describing brutal beatings, hunger to the point of cannibalism, and thirst to the point of urine-drinking. With a health-care reporter’s deft touch, she manages to play down the utter pathos, but her dedication to baring gruesome facts is as unfailing as her loyalty to the mission thrust upon her."
"Investigative journalist MacKeen always knew her grandfather escaped the Armenian Genocide before building a new life in the United States, but much of her family’s incredible origins were masked by time, cultural boundaries, and systematic government denial. The author set out to bring her family’s past into the present by translating her grandfather Stepan Miskjian’s exhaustive personal journals, researching archival documents, and traveling to Turkey and Syria to retrace his steps and meet the Muslim family that saved him and other Armenians from certain death. The narrative alternates perspectives between MacKeen’s quest and her grandfather’s odyssey. Through his journals, Stepan came alive. He was no longer solely the victim of a holocaust, but clever, hard-working, and even a prankster. He was a peddler, an entrepreneur, a soldier for the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and a highly valued servant of a powerful Sheikh. VERDICT This previously untold story of survival and personal fortitude is on par with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Further, this is a tale of tracing your family roots and learning about who you are. It will have broad appeal for a wide range of readers."
—Library Journal, STARRED review
"Readers will find themselves drawn into the whirlpool of events, soon forgetting the author's presence . . . powerful, terrible stories about what people are willing to do to other people—but leavened with hope and, ultimately, forgiveness.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Part family heirloom, part history lesson, The Hundred-Year Walk is an emotionally poignant work, powerfully imagined and expertly crafted. The considerable archival scaffolding remains invisible as MacKeen carries her readers on an emotional journey full of heartache and hope.”
—Aline Ohanesian, author of Orhan’s Inheritance
“In her remarkable book, The Hundred-Year Walk, Dawn MacKeen has taken the Armenian genocide and shown us its terrifying flesh, blood, bone, and sinew. Her vehicle is her grandfather’s forced deportation, and she uses it to take the reader on a horrific ride into the heart of one of history’s darkest moments.”
—S. C. Gwynne, author of Empire of the Summer Moon
“I am in awe of what Dawn MacKeen has done here. With the meticulousness of a historian, the courage of an investigative reporter, and the compassion of a daughter mining a fraught and cherished family legacy, MacKeen has accomplished the near impossible. She has elucidated a complicated ethnic and political history through a delightfully literary lens. Her sentences sing. Her research shines. Her readers will be rapt—and a lot smarter by the end.”
—Meghan Daum, author of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
“By telling the riveting story of her grandfather Stepan, who—like the armies of refugees today—overcame daunting odds as he braved the Turkish gauntlet of death and walked across desert sands to safety, Dawn MacKeen drives home that we’re all part of the human family. The Hundred-Year Walk is an unforgettable contribution to the literature of suffering and memory, and to the growing conviction that we must say ‘Never again’ to the mass destruction of human life and culture."
—David Talbot, author of The Devil’s Chessboard
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