The Honey Jar, An Armenian’s Escape to Freedom, is Joan Schoettler’s captivating tale of a young boy’s 1920, escape from his war-torn home in Armenia.
The full title of this middle reader (10-14 yrs.) novel is The Honey Jar, An Armenian’s Escape to Freedom. Author 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!”
Let’s start with the story which is about an eight-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 The Honey Jar, An Armenian’s Escape to Freedom. 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 when he was eight years old 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, maybe his grandchildren?
To begin with, think of yourself as an eight-year-old boy living in a country invaded by enemy soldiers. His neighbors are already fleeing. Bedros’s mother is extremely ill. Bedros has already seen the deadly effects of the enemy forces. Think of what our children or grandchildren would feel to see the families of their friends and neighbors fleeing the only neighborhoods they have known. His father instructs Bedros to take his three sisters and grandmother and to follow his uncle who will lead them to safety. He keeps track of his tall uncle by following the hat his uncle is wearing, which can be seen above the fleeing crowds. Bedros is entrusted not only with his three sisters and grandmother but also with his mother’s special honey jar and a religious medal. His father will find them when his mother is better. They will be a family again. Their goal is to reach America. But for now, Bedros must not lose sight of his uncle. Bedros promises he will take special care of his two-year-old baby sister.
Circumstances overwhelm Bedros. He loses sight of his uncle; his grandmother falls behind. While looking for his uncle, he takes two of his sisters, but he leaves his baby sister and the honey jar, in the temporary care of a kind stranger who promises him she will take care of his baby sister until he returns. He finally finds his uncle and returns for his baby sister; the kind 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.
How does an eight-year-old boy withstand his father’s anger and grief? Do the two families reach America? Is Bedros ever forgiven for giving away his sister? Is she ever found? Is The Honey Jar a true story? Does the story in free verse (no rhyming) work? I will not answer the first five questions, but does the free verse work? Unbelievably well! A repetition of phrases gives the text a unique rhythm enriching the story’s depth and its characters with endearing reality. The Epilogue and Author’s Note will blow you away.
Once again, Joan Schoettler’s novel gives me another chance to encourage all who read to have an atlas among their books. I find it worth the shelf space in my home library to hold not only a current atlas but also those much older atlases for the pure pleasure of locating cities and countries that were and often are no longer. Schoettler’s story is also an important portal for young readers into the issue of immigrants fleeing their homelands, especially when those fleeing are children of all ages, and often, children who have been sent on their own to seek a better life. There are not enough words to recommend The Honey Jar, An Armenian’s Escape to Freedom. – Sunny Solomon.
Also available by Joan Schoettler: Ruth Asawa: A Sculpting Life, A Home for George, and Good Fortune in a Wrapping Cloth.