Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

"In any case, the short answer to that first question--How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing? --is really very simple. You kill them in the middle of nowhere."
The Sandcastle Girls is a tale of two stories, separated by almost one hundred years. The present is narrated by Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in New York with her husband and two children. From Laura we learn about her life as a half-Armenian American raised in the eastern United States.We also learn about her family's history one that has a connection to the Armenian genocide of 1915. That connection dates back to Laura's American grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott and her Armenian-born grandfather, Armen Petrosian. Although Laura doesn't mention them by name at first, we come to know that this is Elizabeth and Armen, whose story, set in Armenia of 1915,will be related alternately with that of Laura's current narrative.

Laura becomes interested in her family history  in her first year of college while writing for the student newspaper. She is sent on assignment to explore the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts and to write about a resolution by the US House of Representatives to declare the 1915 Armenian slaughter a genocide. There she encounters a photograph that is both puzzling and haunting.

However, life goes on and Laura never really follows up on the picture. However, just before Mother's Day, when she is forty-four years old, an old college friend calls Laura to tell her that there is "an old picture of her grandmother in The Boston Globe". Thinking she will see a picture of her grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, instead it is the same photograph she saw years ago in college. However, this time the photograph has a caption identifying a woman with the last name of Petrosian, who carried her dead infant for days on a march from Harput to Aleppo.

Laura's grandparents rarely spoke to her about the First World War and the Armenian genocide. Not knowing who this woman is, Laura decides to travel to Boston to attend the showing of the photographs at Harvard's Peabody Museum and then travel again to the Watertown Museum where, she has learned, her grandmother's letters and diaries and the reports she wrote for the Friends of Armenia" are held in the archives. Besides the photograph of a young woman bearing the same last name as Laura's family, Laura remembers how her father spoke about his parents moodiness, especially his mother's moroseness.

Interspersed with Laura's narrative about investigating into her grandparents past and the woman with the same last name, is the story of Elizabeth Endicott and Armen Petrosian. This narrative, set in 1915, is provided by twenty-one year old Elizabeth, a graduate from Mount Holyoke College in Boston. But there are also other narrators from this time as well; Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer who has lost his wife, Karine, and their 12 month old daughter in what is becoming a genocide, and also by Nevart and Hartoun, Armenian refugees, and by two German engineers.

Elizabeth and her father,Silas Endicott, a banker, are in Aleppo as representatives of Friends of Armenia organization. Elizabeth came to Aleppo because she felt this would be a meaningful way to finish off her studies at Mount Holyoke. There they are horrified to see refugees, women and children, who have arrived from the desert, naked, emaciated, starving and dying. The American Consul, Ryan Martin tells them that there were at least one thousand before they left Zeitun or Adana, but many have been crucified, tortured and murdered on the march to Aleppo.

My favourite cover
In the town square at Aleppo, Elizabeth and her father meet German engineers who are photographing the refugees in order to document what is happening. Although Germany is an ally of Turkey, they disagree with what is happening and hope to show the world the fate of the Armenians. With them is a young Armenian engineer, Armen. Armen had attended Euphrates College in Harput but escaped with his two brothers, Garo and Hratch into the hills around Van, a beautiful city of 50,000 people, half of whom were Armenian. Garo is possibly with the Russians while Hratch is dead. Armen had a young wife, Karine and a young daughter, both of whom he now believes have perished.

Armen and Elizabeth are instantly attracted to one another and begin to meet daily, talking and going for walks. When they start to become physically close, Armen decides to leave for Egypt where he plans to meet up with the British and enlist. He leaves abruptly and Elizabeth and her father continue trying to help the refugees both in Aleppo and also those sent to camps in the desert.

Bohjalian gradually weaves both stories together, telling us what happens to Elizabeth and Armen and how their story and the mysterious woman in the photograph is connected to Laura's family. It is a story of profound tragedy and terrible loss that reaches into the future to touch Laura. It is also a story of family secrets, too painful to have been broached therefore history not passed on.

Laura's narrative besides providing a storyline also serves to instruct the reader about the Armenian genocide, in a matter of fact, but in-depth manner. As such Laura's perspective tends to reinforce what her grandmother and great-grandfather saw in Aleppo in 1915. Laura informs us about the 1908 revolution in Turkey, where Talat Pasha seized power and masterminded the genocide of the Armenian Christians; how the Turks systematically descended upon the Armenians, disarming them, rounding up the men, massacring them and then deporting the women and children; how the world refused to believe what was happening; how the Germans were complicit in the genocide. It's a tragedy that the world still seems loathe to recognize, despite the 100th anniversary which will be in 2015.

Bohjalian's novel is well researched, well written, and definitely gripping to the very end. There is some sexual content, but the overall story and especially the subject matter is too important to be missed. 

Book Details:
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
New York: Doubleday      2012
293 pp.

1 comment:

Jean said...

Thanks for posting about this book. I'd heard about it, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it.

There are a lot of good books about the Armenian Genocide. It's too bad they're largely ignored.