"How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing?" Chris Bohjalian's powerful novel, The Sandcastle Girls shows readers the Armenian genocide through two parallel stories, that of a young American woman living through it, and that of her granddaughter discovering the stories of her grandparents. But, we also see it through other eyes, all of them victims in their own ways.
Laura Petrosian was in her forties, a married novelist with two children, when a picture set her on the hunt for her grandparents' story. Her grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, was from a proper Boston family when she accompanied her own father to Aleppo, Syria in 1915. They were volunteers as part of an aid mission, representing the Friends of Armenia. The Turks had killed Armenian men and deported the women and children. Elizabeth wasn't prepared to see all the starving, dying refugees. She also wasn't prepared to fall in love with Armen, an Armenian engineer who had fought the Turks, losing his brother, his wife and daughter in the Turkish slaughter.
The Sandcastle Girls combines historical elements, romance, and personal and national tragedy. For me, it was the ethnic tragedy and irony that overshadowed the book. In 1915, the Germans were allies of the Turks, however there were Germans who were not only appalled at the actions of the Turks, but, in this story, photographed the refugees in order to record the tragedy for posterity. In fact, the American consul said, "How the Germans can remain allies with the Turks is beyond me. No European nation would ever commit the sort of crimes that this regime is blithely committing right now."
Chris Bohjalian brings his tragic characters to life. Even the survivors suffered, carrying secrets to their graves. They were all victims. Laura Petrosian's discovery of her grandmother's letters and journals brought all of that home. She had never considered her Armenian ancestry. Her grandparents' story became a personal journey for her, a revelation that both Elizabeth and Armen had lives and secrets they never shared even with their own children. This is a fascinating story, a powerful story of victims and survival. At the same time, Elizabeth Endicott's story is an account of daily life in a war zone.
Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls has a powerful message. He uses the novel and personal accounts to say "History does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Serbs and the Rwandans." And, each time, the world would rather avert its eyes. "How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing?"
Chris Bohjalian's website is www.chrisbohjalian.com
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Doubleday. 2012. ISBN 9780385534796 (hardcover), 299p.
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