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US scholar-turned-writer Jenny White uses crime, passion and political foment to decipher Turkey.
White takes Kamil Pasha into every nook and cranny of this ancient city, from the bustle and chaos of the Eminonu pier to a nighttime passage across dark waters to Uskudar, as much a tollbooth for the Bosphorus then as it is today.
Her knowledge of the city — White has been traveling to Istanbul since the 1970s — make the scenes of veiled women, bad hospitals and narrow passageways come alive, while the depth of her historical knowledge keeps them accurate.
“I choose the 1880s because it was a kind of in-between period, a time of turbulence but before the explosive end of the Ottoman Empire,” White said. “Things were changing, but no one knew in which direction, so it was a time of questions, a time of experimentation.”
The title comes from ancient Armenian mythology, which called the Milky Way the "Straw Thief's Way.” According to legend, the god Vahagn stole a straw from the Assyrian king Barsham and brought it to Armenia during a cold winter. When he fled across the heavens, he fell and the straw spilled across the sky.
“What kind of god is that? A fumbling god? For me it’s a metaphor for those who hold good intentions but are plagued by their own ineptitude,” White said.
In her story, it is a group of Armenian communists intent on setting up a utopian community whose naivete and incompetence ultimately lead to death and destruction. But while her portrayal of both Turks and Armenians throughout the book is subtle and varied, leaving neither party wholly marked by guilt or innocence, White worries about how the role of Armenian characters in her book might be interpreted by a skeptical Turkish populace.
“I hope that Turks will read my book and form their own opinions,” White said. “But I worry that the fact that I have Armenian characters in dominant roles may mean that the book never makes it to a Turkish translation. There is so much history there.”