Book Review: A Story of Four Generations


By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Family of Shadows: A Century of Murder, Memory, and the Armenian-American Dream by Garin K. Hovannisian. HarperCollins. 272 pp. $27.99. ISBN 978-0-06-179208-3

This clearly partisan and impassioned family biography recounts the sufferings, the strivings and the achievements of four generations of a family that has made its mark, most particularly, in the areas of Armenian scholarship and Armenian politics.

The Hovannisian family, hailing from the village of Bazmashen, had a son, Kaspar, who experienced all the horrors of the Armenian Genocide. Driven from his home by the Turks, he is beaten by the Kurds yet is befriended by one of them. After wandering in the desert alone, he escapes, in 1916 to Russian Armenia. He maintains himself doing various low-level jobs and finally comes to the town of Garin in Western Armenia where he meets many other Armenian refugees and learns to become a soldier and eventually joins General Antranig’s army. Antranig, immortalized in the annals of Armenian history for his fierce battles against the Turks, eventually dispersed his army in the face of overwhelming opposition and Kaspar once more takes up his wanderings in Soviet Armenia, as the hope of an independent Armenia is eventually snuffed out in the machinations of the Great Powers.

In 1920, Kaspar makes his way to Le Havre and boards a ship headed to the United States. Once at Ellis Island, he changes his name from Gavroian to Hovannisian and finds a job in a shoe factory in Chelsea, Mass. Soon, with the help of a cousin, he moves to Tulare, Calif., a town that more closely resembles the homeland he left, and which is populated by many Armenians, probably for the same reason. He is drawn into politics and allies himself with Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and learns the distinctions between it and other parties, particularly the Ramgavars.

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“Our side meant the ARF, those who viewed the Soviet Union as an illegal occupant of an independent Armenian homeland. ‘The other side’ meant the Ramgavars and the Hunchakians, those who accepted Soviet Armenia as their homeland….Tulare was a patchwork of friends and other friends who were potential enemies, because no one knew what would come when the tears of the people dried.”

In this complex environment, Kaspar thrives, first working in a barber shop but eventually buying land and establishing a family. He has four sons, and of them Richard, who prefers reading to more masculine pursuits, is distinguished by his academic abilities and his desire to chronicle the history of the Armenian people. It is this Hovannisian who will make an important reputation as a scholar, the author of the important four-volume work, The Republic of Armenia. For decades, Richard Hovannisian would be — and still is — a respected figure at numerous academic conferences, managing to found a chair of Armenian studies at the University of California where he taught Armenian history.

It is his son, Raffi, the author’s father, who charges into the arena of Armenian politics. Early on, he joined the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and as a teenager at Palisades High School, he was quickly recognized as a leader.

His son describes him as follows: “Raffi was a natural leader, which is to say that he achieved power quite without trying. The depth of his voice, the mysterious sense of national purpose — the very qualities that helped him navigate the social labyrinth of Pali High also distinguished him in the AYF. Raffi was elected vice president and then president of the Simon Vratsian chapter [Vratsian had been the prime minister of the short-lived first Republic of Armenia in 1920], and he proceeded, as was his nature, to out-do himself.”

Raffi’s ambitions carry him from Berkeley and a law degree eventually to Armenia, where he, astoundingly, gives up his US citizenship in order to run in the elections there. When Levon Ter-

Petrosian was elected as president of the newly independent Armenia in 1991, he appointed Raffi as his foreign minister. The complexities of Raffi’s political career, his struggles to become an Armenian citizen are covered in detail.

The excesses of this account must be attributed to the perhaps forgivable sins of family pride and Armenian patriotism. Hovannisian has clearly done his research, both in family archives and in published works. However, the book is in no way a disinterested nor objective account either of the Hovannisian family nor of his family’s place in history. Some readers may warm to the unabashed trumpeting of one family’s story while others may wish to flavor this heady stew of accomplishments with a grain of salt.

Hovannisian ends his account with an implied question: “I do not know what will become of us….if we will live up to our names or find new names, ones that aren’t obsessed with posterity or the past. I do not know if the Armenian spirit in us will wane and die, as it has a bad habit of doing in this wonderful dispersion. I do not know if we are to become the real prodigal sons, wasting a fortune of inherited memories to pursue our own phantoms of happiness. I do not know what we will do now that the mythology is complete.”

In any case, this volume may be read as a dramatic account of one family’s journey.

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