REVIEW – Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

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Dance of the Banished is an evocative title suggesting a novel about exile, punishment, and isolation. But it is also a love story about two Alevi Kurd young people separated by war, and isolated from their culture. Divided by an ocean, Ali and Zeynep long to be together. Their dreams are similar to those of any young couple. They desire the freedom to make a safe home for themselves, and to practice their religion, and honour their culture without fear of persecution.

Meticulously researched and sensitively written by award-winning author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, Ali and Zeynep take us on their journey that begins in the months prior to World War 1.

In 1913 Anatolia, a young couple, Ali and Zeynep, dream of building a new life in Canada together. But when Ali suddenly finds passage to Canada for his brother and himself, he must leave his fiancée, Zeynep, behind. He promises to send for her when he has earned enough money for her passage. Zeynep, angry at being left behind, tells Ali she refuses to wait for him, but before he leaves, she gives him an evil eye necklace for protection. Ali presents Zeynep a journal to write in, encouraging her to record her life and thoughts until they can be together again. He has a matching journal, and promises to do the same.

It is through the diaries of Ali and Zeynep that the story is told. Through their writing in their journals, each tells the other about their experiences and thoughts.

Through Zeynep’s journal, we learn about her frustration and disappointment when Ali breaks his promise and leaves her behind. And to make matters worse, she suspects Ali’s mother orchestrated his sudden departure. But Zeynep refuses to give up her dream of finding better opportunities, and follows visiting Christian missionaries to a nearby city in hopes of improving her life and obtaining an education. Zeynep’s observations about Western customs give us insight into the Alevi culture. For example, she puzzles that the house has many rooms, and separate rooms for people to sleep in and that one room is used for eating only when company come to visit. Zeynep quickly becomes accustomed to her new surroundings, and helps the missionaries at the hospital.

Soon, Europe is on the brink of World War 1, and the Ottoman Army marches through village after village in Anatolia, leaving behind destruction and death. Zeynep is horrified when the Young Turks start to kill people who are non-Turks, specifically the Alevis and the Armenians. Young men are forced into the army, and non-compliance with conscription means death. Zeynep realizes that Ali is safer in Canada. Alevis and Armenians fear for their lives, and escape into the mountains enduring cold and thirst and starvation.

With the encouragement of the American consul, Leslie Davis, she becomes an important eyewitness to these events since she is a non-Christian. He encourages Zeynep to continue to write in Zaza, and even provides her with special thick paper, and a selection of pens.

On the other side of the ocean, Canada is at war with the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Austria. Ali has found a job in Brantford, Ontario, but when World War I erupts, all foreigners are let go for “patriotic reasons.” Ali futilely tries to explain that he is an Alevi Kurd, and no friend of the Turks. But everyone assumes because he is from Turkey, he is a Turk. Ali and his brother are sent away to Kapuskasing, Ontario to work in a internment camp cutting down trees, an act which causes Ali much grief since felling trees is forbidden in the Alevi religion.

In their separate journals, Zeynep and Ali both express a desire to dance the semah with each other again. We feel their longing to perform the ritual Alevi dance-prayer which is danced by six couples, both men and women, side by side. Ali pictures Zeynep’s red head scarf swirling, and Zeynep yearns to be with Ali again. The memory of their last dance together sustains them both as they ponder their choices in virtually hopeless situations. 

Through the diaries of Ali and Zeynep, we experience the horrors of war, the injustice of exile, and their love for each other and their culture. They seek a better life, but are thwarted by the outbreak of war, and circumstances where they are forced to fight for their lives, their love, and their culture. How will Zeynep get to Canada when it is at war with Turkey?

The dedication for Dance of the Banished reads “For the forgotten ones.” In her nineteenth book, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch again gives a revealing and compassionate voice to an under-represented group of people, and shines a light on little-known events in history. Writing about historical injustices for young adults requires a solid grip of the events, sensitivity, and the ability to juggle multiple perspectives in order to create a compelling story that not only keeps us turning the pages, but also brings forward truths that may have been forgotten or buried. Dance of the Banished enlightens us about the plight of the Alevi Kurds during World War 1, saddens us as we find out about the massacre of the Armenians, and maybe even embarrasses us as we discover how “foreigners” were treated in Ontario. Her characters are human, and multifaceted, and make us think about how we would react in times of great stress if our homeland, families, or loved ones were in danger. The answers are never easy, and Marsha does not shy away from difficult and heart-wrenching choices.

Marsha has received numerous awards and honours for her picture books and young adult novels, including a nomination for the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year in 2007. Marsha has penned the bestselling Dear Canada book, Prisoners in the Promised Land. She has written about the Ukrainian Holodomyr, the Armenian genocide, and the Vietnamese war orphans (One Step at a Time, The Last Airlift). Her most recent books are about Ukrainians in World War II (Underground Soldier, Making Bombs for Hitler, Stolen Child). 

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Visit Marsha at www.calla2.com for a complete list of her books and her blog.  

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One thought on “REVIEW – Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

  1. Sherry Isaac

    It is in raw and honest storytelling such as Dance of the Banished and Darkest Corner of the World that true history is revealed. (That, and the fact that evil mother-in-laws can be found everywhere.) I find the details of other cultures so interesting. Who would have thought tree-felling would be forbidden when we knock down trees every day?

    Thanks for sharing this read, Urve.

    Reply

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