(July 26, 2023) — With “The Honey Jar, An Armenian’s Escape to Freedom,” Joan Schoettler has written a story so captivating that I don’t even know where to begin in recommending it – except to say, “Buy it, read it, no matter how old you are.”
This middle reader (10-14 years old) novel is about an 8-year-old Armenian boy living in the city of Kars. The year is 1920. Before we know the boy’s name (Bedros) or that his father is a farmer, his mother raises bees and he has three younger sisters, we read, “I gave my sister away. She was two. I was not yet nine.”
If those words don’t move you into diving head-first into this story, nothing will. It is a nonstop read. I could not put it down.
Schoettler has taken many risks in writing this novel. First, the story is in free verse. Second, as a female author, she writes in the voice of a young boy. That risk is compounded because although Bedros tells his story in the present tense, with words both direct and plain, we sense it is an older Bedros telling us what it was like, remembering back to when he was 8 and had to escape the only home he had ever known because the Turkish army was invading Armenia. Might it be an older narrator, maybe a grandfather, telling his story to children?
To begin with, think of yourself as an 8-year boy living in a country invaded by enemy soldiers. Bedros’ neighbors are already fleeing. His mother is extremely ill. His father instructs Bedros to take his three sisters and grandmother and follow his uncle, who will lead them to safety. Among the things taken is his mother’s favorite honey jar.
His father will find them when his mother gets better. They will be a family again. They have a goal of reaching America. Bedros promises he will especially take care of his youngest, 2-year-old sister.
Circumstances overwhelm Bedros. He loses sight of his uncle; his grandmother falls behind. While looking for his uncle, he leaves his baby sister and the honey jar in the temporary care of a kind stranger. He finally finds his uncle and returns for his baby sister, but the stranger is gone, along with his sister.
Matters worsen when his father returns alone, grief-stricken over his wife’s death. Bedros must now tell his father what happened to the baby.
Does it work?
Do they reach America? Is Bedros ever forgiven for giving away his sister? Do they find his sister? Is “The Honey Jar” a true story? Does the story in free verse (no rhyming) work? I will not answer the first four questions, but I will say that the free verse works unbelievably well. A repetition of phrases gives the text a unique rhythm of depth and character. The Epilogue and Author’s Note will blow you away. Not enough words to recommend “The Honey Jar.”
Sunny Solomon is a freelance writer and head of the Clayton Book Club. Visit her website at bookinwithsunny.com for her latest recommendations or just to ‘talk books.’
Sunny Solomon holds an MA in English/Creative Writing, San Francisco State University. She is a book reviewer for “The Clayton Pioneer” and her poetry and other writing has been published in literary journals, one chapbook, In the Company of Hope and the collection, Six Poets Sixty-six Poems. She was the happy manager of Bonanza Books, Clayton, CA and Clayton Books, Clayton, CA. She continues to moderate a thriving book club that survived the closure of the store from which it began. Sunny currently lives next to the Truckee in Reno, NV.