Fiction: the last day of the war

Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
August 8, 2004 Sunday, Home Final Edition



Judith Claire Mitchell’s assured first novel, The Last Day of the War
, neatly masters the historical novel’s biggest challenge: It breaks
through a potentially overwhelming tangle of events to focus on the
actions of a few well-defined characters and uses them to illuminate
a broader scene.

The novel wears its thorough research lightly, Mitchell never larding
The Last Day with details that don’t contribute to characters or

As World War I draws to a close, and after the official cessation of
hostilities, two young Americans become entangled in a Paris-based
plot to take revenge against the Turks, who massacred the Armenians
in 1915.

Nineteen-year-old Yael Weiss, a young woman with suffragette
leanings, meets U.S. intelligence officer Dub Hagopian, of Armenian
descent, in a St. Louis library.

There he has been scheduled to pick up weapons for Erinyes, the
secret vengeance organization run by the “old and maimed lion” Aram
Kazarian, who has had four fingers lopped off by the Turks.

Attracted to Dub and bored with St. Louis, Yael signs up with the Red
Cross in order to follow him to Europe, changing her name to Yale
White and listing her age as the required 25 and her religion as

On the boat to Europe, she is assigned alphabetically to room with
impetuous, ginger-haired Mary Brennan White, who is “thin as broth,
but hardly as dull” and flaunts her failed relationship with a
married man.

The two come into conflict with supervising matron Amo Winston, a
repressed former beauty cream saleswoman, who is constantly
“unsquinching” her eyes to avoid wrinkles; and with the unctuous Rev.
Alban Bliss, “an imposing man, large in the manner of President Taft,
his pink face composed mostly of cheeks and chins, his chest and
belly straining the buttons on his uniform, his roly-poly thighs
testing the inner seams of his jodhpurs.”

Their lives are later complicated by Dub’s thuggish friend Raffi,
whose life dream is “to be a full-time professional vengeance
seeker,” and by Raffi’s sister Ramela, who has barely survived the
Turkish atrocities, and whom Dub has promised to marry if she will
stop cutting and burning herself.

The scope of The Last Day is rare in a first novel. Each of the
characters is fully developed, and their interactions are thoroughly
believable. So is the world in which they live: It shapes the
characters just as they, in some small way, shape it.

Equally rare is Mitchell’s finely tuned pacing. Allotting each scene
enough time to unfold fully, but never bogging down the narrative in
incidents that don’t advance the action, she builds to a conclusion
as satisfying as it is unpredictable.
From: Baghdasarian