Friday, July 20, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Publisher: Doubleday
Date: July 17, 2012
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 300
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost. Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the “Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura’s grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family’s history that reveals love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.

My review: By nature of the subject about which it is written, The Sandcastle Girls can be a difficult read. The Armenian Genocide during the First World War - nicknamed here as The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About - is much less known to the average person than genocides such as the Holocaust and that which occurred in Rwanda, but it equals them in gruesomeness and atrocities perpetrated on our fellow human beings. Personally, my introduction to the event came with The Road from Home (David Kherdian) in middle school, but at that time I don't think I realized the true significance and scale of the genocide.

The Sandcastle Girls takes a nuanced approach to the slaughter. As in real life, there are 'good guys' and 'villains' on every side - you have Turks committing crimes against humanity, Turks who don't agree with their nation's treatment of the Armenians, Germans who are only concerned about diplomacy, Germans who are speaking out against the genocide, Americans who are very kind-hearted and open-minded, Americans who are more pusillanimous, etc. No character is perfect; everyone has skeletons in their closets or has done things not above moral questioning.

Though the novel takes for its characters only a small cross-section of the people involved in the genocide, it covers a remarkable survey of related WWI-era events: the Armenian crossing of the desert, their 'camps' afterward in Aleppo and Der-al-Zor, fighting in the Dardanelles, the sinking of the Lusitania, and even a brief bit of the brief life of the separate Armenian republic. The story focuses primarily on a few key characters, but the larger picture is always present in the background. In this way, the author combines the emotional intensity that comes from the reader's intimacy with a few individuals and the historical knowledge that comes with a broader look at events. The result is an eye-opening and engaging look at a horrific part of modern history.

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