Our narrator and main guy starts out as an innocent, twelve-year-old boy in a comfortable home. He's got a maid, a cook, and even someone to do his laundry—it sounds like a pretty nice life. But it's not long before this rich kid is put through the wringer again… and again… and again.
It's hard to imagine how traumatizing it would be to see your brothers shot before your own eyes, your sister take poison to avoid being raped, or your grandma killed simply for taking a drink of water. But Vahan experiences all this before he makes it to the Altoonians', trudging through the unthinkable, and telling us what he's feeling every step of the way. For instance, when he's at Goryan's Inn, he thinks:
[…] for the first time in my life, I was hungry and there was no food, I was thirsty and there was no water. I knew then as I had not known before that the room was real and that my home and my room and my bed had been a dream. (6.22)
Vahan's hunger and thirst is emphasized by the fact that he's never experienced this before—the harshness of this reality is amplified. He's always had a comfortable life with no concerns, but now he's suffering more than most of us can even fathom. And later, though his location has changed, the situation is functionally still the same. The hard times just don't quit. He tells us:
I was an Armenian, and in Turkey anything could happen to an Armenian for any reason or for no reason at all. (22.1)
We couldn't have said it better ourselves—there is absolutely no reason for Armenians to be killed, which Vahan makes abundantly clear since he's just a kid (instead of, say, a political activist). That he goes out of his way to "behave" when he's around Turkish people so they don't find a reason to kill him shows how unrelenting fear is for Vahan, and also just how much the odds are stacked against him. He's got to try to stay one step ahead, falling in line time and again in the name of staying alive.
As Vahan continues on his journey, he tries to get stronger and summon courage even when there's no reason to hope. We can't help but wonder if Vahan is too hard on himself though, when he says, "I wish I could tell you that I discovered reserves of courage inside myself that I had never suspected, and that I became at last my father's son. But I didn't" (13.1). Courage isn't necessarily about how you feel inside, after all, half as much as it's about what you do on the outside. Plus, how could he not feel terrified given the circumstances he finds himself in?
Vahan's dad is a big inspiration and motivation for him, and Vahan aspires to be the way his father taught him to be: strong, determined, and proud. Yet he has a hard time given his situation. Can you blame him? We think even his dad would see that. It's not as though running for your life and watching your family murdered are normal for teens to see—to not feel terrified would almost be alarming in its own right.
As much as his dad's words haunt him, they also encourage Vahan to keep pressing on. When he thinks back to his dad telling him to be like steel, and only gain strength from fire, he confides in us:
[…] but I did not feel like steel. I felt like cold flesh and bones, and if anything happened to Sisak I did not know what I would do. (9.6)
That Vahan manifests strength despite feeling weak—that he just keeps going no matter what obstacles get thrown in his path—suggests impressive strength in our book. This kid is like the master of the fake it 'til you make it mantra, and eventually Vahan becomes more and more like steel as he learns when to trust people, and when to run for the hills.
When he decides to book it out of Selim Bey's pad, he falls in with a crowd of Turkish refugees, and pretends to be a deaf mute. This isn't the last disguise Vahan uses to protect himself along the way, either—before the book is up, he hides in many closets, pretends to be in the Turkish army, and even dresses as a girl. Vahan will do anything he can to stay alive, and we think this is exactly what his dad would have wanted: to see his son keep going instead of accepting a terrible fate.
For one reason or another, each of these disguises falls through. While it's a bummer each time it happens, Vahan eventually realizes that he can't pretend to be someone else for the rest of his life. He confesses:
I was not Galib, and this was not my home and these people were not my family. I had known that the instant I heard the shot. And when the prisoner slumped forward, I saw my father and my brothers and myself. I had known then that I was leaving, that I had to leave. (24.43)
Vahan—or should we say Galib—fits right in with the Turkish refugees by pretending to be a deaf mute, but it's not long before Vahan has to be honest with himself and come to terms with the fact that he doesn't actually belong with them. It's tough for him to leave the safe and warm protection of that crowd and head down the mountain (literally) by himself, but he knows he's got to do it… or else. He won't truly be safe, after all, until he can openly be himself.
By the end of the novel, Vahan is fifteen years old, but he's aged more than three years. He's learned to be self-sufficient, take risks, and survive horrible things, plus he's seen haunting sights and misses his family a lot. When he says, "I knew that the home I had lost represented a million other homes, and the city I had lost the nation of what had once been Armenia" (35.12), we're depressed right along with him. Life as he once knew it has been completely obliterated.
Those words had once been are telling. They show us that it's no longer Armenia because it has been destroyed—nothing will change that. Vahan was one in a million in surviving, and we're thrilled that our main guy makes it out alive. But we're also aware that because he's one in a million, there are so many kids like him who didn't survive. It's a depressing end to the book, to say the least, because though Vahan is finally safe, the vastness of the destruction to his country and his people looms large.