My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Goodreads: Over the course of his career, New York Times bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys. Midwivesbrought us to an isolated Vermont farmhouse on an icy winter’s night and a home birth gone tragically wrong. The Double Bind perfectly conjured the Roaring Twenties on Long Island—and a young social worker’s descent into madness. And Skeletons at the Feast chronicled the last six months of World War Two in Poland and Germany with nail-biting authenticity. As The Washington Post Book World has noted, Bohjalian writes “the sorts of books people stay awake all night to finish.”
In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, he brings us on a very different kind of journey. This spellbinding tale travels between Aleppo, Syria, in 1915 and Bronxville, New York, in 2012—a sweeping historical love story steeped in the author’s Armenian heritage, making it his most personal novel to date.
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 thoughts: This book was incredibly moving. For all the books I have read about the Holocaust, I sadly deficient in understanding World War I. Embarrassingly, I didn't realize that it was not one war but a compilation of many wars between countries, within countries, and between religious groups. At the same time, many countries had formed alliances with other countries which prevented intervention when one group of people were committing wars against humanity like, say, oh, genocide.
One very important accomplishment with this book is that the author doesn't paint the bad guys as "the bad guys." For instance, Germany is waging a war in Europe. However, the story concentrates on two German soldiers with a social conscience who are trying to document the atrocities being administered to the Armenians by the Turks. Also take into account that the Ottoman Empire has formed an alliance with Germany while the Russians are trying to conquer Syria which would save the Armenians from genocide. Although, if truth be told, they wouldn't (and didn't) necessarily survive Lenin or Stalin.
I actually found myself referring to historical websites to get a snapshot of the conflict between Armenia and the Turks. As a public service, I will give you a nutshell history. Because I'm totally cool like that. Also, know most of my sources were Wikipedia and read late at night. It won't be perfect.
The Ottoman Empire was a big deal. It was huge and encompassed many countries from Eastern Europe to Russia, to the edge of Iraq and a part of Africa. The Turks controlled the empire for the better of 600 years and established certain norms. For the most part, the Turks were Muslim. The Armenians were the first Christian state to declare Christianity, as early as possibly 40 A.D. Armenians enjoyed second class citizen treatment where the Turks could do as they pleased. If the Armenians looked like they might be planning a revolution, discipline would be invoked. It was very ugly.
Tensions were running high when, in the late 1800's, the Turks massacred approximately 600,000 Armenians. Things calmed a bit then re-escalated a couple of decades later. Armenians could no longer own weapons. If their houses were searched and a gun was found, they could be executed. If the house was searched and no guns were found, it could be assumed they were hiding guns and they could be executed. The genocide began in April, 1915. The Turks gathered up the Armenian men from villages and had them executed. I am going to skip details. With the men gone, it was easy to round up the women and children and force them to march through the desert without food or water. Those that didn't perish from starvation or dehydration, were often tortured, raped, and murdered. A small fraction of those that began the deportation made it as far as Aleppo where an American compound was situated and consulates of both American and German nationalities resided. The fraction that made it that far were then force marched to a makeshift concentration camp deeper into the desert where they were subject to the above mentioned deaths but then add disease and other unsavory maladies. Estimates of this genocide run over 1 million to 1 and a half million.
The story alternates time periods. The narrator is the granddaughter of Elizabeth, an American young woman who decides to accompany her father on a philanthropy mission to Aleppo, and Armen, a broken Armenian man who has already lost his wife and baby daughter. The modern day protagonist has no connection to her Armenian heritage or what her grandparents saw or endured. There were a lot of secrets that died with both of them. Some were never shared with one another. Then one day a photo from Aleppo turns up in the newspaper, the caption includes the name of the woman which presents many questions and spirals the granddaughter into a manic search of grandparents past.
Witty, heartbreaking, and beautiful, the author presents the history of the Armenian people and the genocide; their treatment closely imitates the tactics later used on Jews during German occupied Europe during WWII. The cast of characters is immensely intriguing. Within the hospital where Elizabeth helps, is a middle aged Turkish and Muslim doctor that imparts wisdom from his beloved K'ran, teaching Elizabeth the beauty of his religion rather than the hate - filled interpretations being circulated in the name of war. There is also Nevart, a doctor's widow who nearly dead. She cares for Houtoun, an orphan who rarely speaks but speaks volumes in her actions and interpretations of her world.
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