By Rachel K. Paulose
AAP Guest Columnist
Chris Bohjalian’s “The Sandcastle Girls” is a fascinating account of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks during World War II. The book is historical fiction: while the story is based on real events, it is told through created characters. Bohjalian is Armenian-American, and the approaching solemn centennial of the 1915 tragedy lends his book a special poignancy.
The book is narrated by the character Laura Petrosian, an author by training and the granddaughter of a genocide survivor. Laura is motivated to write this account after receiving a call from a friend who claims she has seen a picture of Laura’s grandmother in the Boston Globe. Curious about the photograph, Laura begins to research her family’s story as well as the history of the larger Turkish operation of Armenian extermination, which she refers to as the “Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.” Following the trail of the mystery photograph, Laura unearths a deeply buried family secret.
Although Laura serves as the book’s storyteller, this tale belongs to her grandparents, Elizabeth Endicott and Armen Petrosian. In 1915, Elizabeth, a Boston Brahmin fresh from Mount Holyoke College, arrives in Aleppo, Syria, with her banker father, Silas. The Endicotts are part of a charity mission organized by the Friends of Armenia to help mitigate the plight of the Armenians during the First World War. They are hosted in Syria by Ryan Martin, the American consul in Aleppo.
The Endicotts are woefully unprepared for the depth of the suffering they encounter. Walking down the street their first day in Aleppo, the Endicotts and Martin pass a line of Armenian women being paraded through the town by the Turks. Elizabeth is horrified: “She thinks of the paintings and drawings she has seen of American slave markets in the South from the 1840s and 1850s . . . . Many might be her age or even a little younger . . . . Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil . . . . The women look like dying wild animals as they lurch forward, some holding on to the walls of the stone houses to remain erect. She has never in her life seen people so thin.”
Elizabeth passionately takes up the cause of the stricken Armenians. Serving at a local hospital, she does her best to care for the sick, protect the vulnerable, and encourage the dispirited. She memorizes parts of the Koran, learns Turkish and Armenian, and even convinces her father and Martin to take into the consulate Nevart, an Armenian refugee. Nevart also has rescued from the desert an orphan girl, Hatoun, who has been rendered largely silent after witnessing the brutal execution of her family. Nevart describes herself and Hatoun as the “unkillable.” Both Nevart and Hatoun become an integral part of Elizabeth’s new extended family in Aleppo, and their experiences sharply contour Elizabeth’s view of the unfolding catastrophe.
Another early encounter in Aleppo proves even more consequential. At dinner one evening, Elizabeth meets two German soldiers, Helmut and Eric, and their Armenian engineer companion, Armen. The Germans are stationed in Aleppo as part of the wartime force. While Germany and Turkey are technically allied during the war, the German soldiers are in fact appalled at the Turkish massacre of the Armenians. Helmut and Eric surreptitiously photograph the Armenian survivors to preserve and transmit to the world a record of the genocide. One fateful day, they are caught in the act. The Turks destroy the offending camera, attempt to confiscate the Germans’ diligent photographic record, and demand the soldiers’ expulsion.
Armen too, is on a mission in Aleppo. He is searching for any record of his Armenian wife Karine and their baby, whom he believes have been killed by the Turks on one of the endless death marches to which Turkish women and children were subjected during the war. Disconsolate, Armen turns to Elizabeth for friendship. Unexpectedly, love blossoms in the desert.
Armen and Elizabeth’s courtship is interrupted after Armen determines the best service he can render to the memory of his fallen wife, child, and other slain family members is to join the British Army to fight the Turks. Armen flees Aleppo to fight the Turks at the Dardanelles, where Helmut and Eric have also been shipped as punishment for their record making. The Dardanelles were punishment indeed. Students of history will remember that the Dardanelles were the site of a disastrous Allied campaign that led to massive casualties, set back the Allied cause, and nearly undid the incomparable Winston Churchill’s career near its inception.
Weaving her story back and forth from past to present, Laura intersperses details of her own upbringing with Armen and Elizabeth’s story. Laura shares experiences that reveal the universality of the American immigrant experience, despite vast differences in nation or ethnic origin. Laura uses humor to diffuse her own frustration with cultural stereotypes and to depict her family’s experiences straddling several different cultures in the United States.
Laura leaves no mystery as to the fate of all her major characters, tying up her story neatly–rather too neatly, by book’s end. Real life mysteries, especially transcontinental, multigenerational mysteries, are rarely solved so expeditiously.
Symbolism echoes throughout this book. The meandering trail of the Boston Globe photograph, Laura’s obsession with scars on the skin and scars on the soul, even Armen’s name–a shortened version of the term “Armenian,” all are weighted with meaning. The main characters, their paths in life, and even their memories are fragile as sandcastles.
The choice to depict the narrative through Laura’s eyes is an interesting one, particularly given that Laura’s chronicle is harmony complementing Armen and Elizabeth’s melody. The narrative choice, however, seems to serve as a device to underscore the purpose of the book: to imprint on the reader the generational impact of war and genocide.
To this day, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the reality of the Armenian genocide, with consequences ranging from imprisonment to death for the truth tellers. “But history,” as Laura says, “does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Serbs and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but really, how much genocide can one sentence handle? You get the point. Besides, my grandparents’ story deserves to be told, regardless of their nationalities.”
The slaughter of civilians as a weapon of war continues unabated in our time. Not coincidentally, Laura anchors her story in Aleppo, once again the scene of mass murder. Once again, a ruthless government in Syria has massacred truth tellers struggling to share their reality. Once again, the world has averted its eyes. The message of Bohjalian’s book is that we dare not forget the lessons of history, remaining silent in the face of such oppression.