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Chris Bohjalian novel ‘The Sandcastle Girls’ takes the reader from the year 1915 in Aleppo, Syria, to 201, in Bronxville, N.Y.
The author writes a sweeping historical story about an Armenian engineer and a wealthy, college-educated graduate of Mount Holyoke. In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott and her Boston-banker father, Silas, travel to Aleppo, on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver humanitarian assistance. Elizabeth wants to travel to refugee camps to administer aid and arrives to observe refugees entering the city, emaciated and dying. Elizabeth is determined to make a difference. During her work in Aleppo she meets an Armenian engineer named Armen.
Mr. Bohjalian presents this history mostly through the eyes of its victims. Armen searches in vain for his wife and children among the refugees. Mourning the loss of his family, he volunteers to join the British in their fight against the Turks. Just before he leaves, he meets Elizabeth and a connection forms.
When the novel switches to the present day the reader begins to see the genocide from a distant perspective. Laura Petrosian, a novelist and granddaughter of Elizabeth and Armen Petrosian, sets out in a search for answers about her grandparents and the truth of the Armenian genocide. As Laura searches her family’s history, she discovers the truth from both an historical and a personal perspective. The story alternates between Elizabeth in Aleppo and Laura in New York. The effect is to stun the reader with the epic scale of the Armenian genocide. Laura’s perspective comes through the survivors, refugees in the United States who include her grandparents.
According to an essay from The Armenian Weekly, 2012, author Chris Bohjalian says, “I think ‘The Sandcastle Girls’ may be the most important book I’ve ever written. It certainly is the most personal. … Those fictional grandparents are not by any stretch my grandparents, but the novel would not exist without their courage and charisma.”
This novel is meticulously researched. The use of clinical language and archival photographs describes the horrors of the genocide without sentimentalizing it. April 24 will mark the 98th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 1915.