We’re participating in the Vacation Reads Giveaway Hop. Our giveaway is The Sandcastle Girls by bestselling author Chris Bohjalian. I picked it because it sounded like something you could read on a leisurely beach vacation. Little did I know that its sandcastles were not built at the beach.
This is going to be a cross-cultural read for most of us. Most people have no clue about the history of Armenian people who may be their neighbors. If you’re interested in other cultures, this could be an excellent vacation read. And one lucky reader is going to win an advance readers copy (ARC) of The Sandcastle Girls!
The Sandcastle Girls takes place now and in 1915, during World War I, when the Turks decided to eradicate the Armenian race for the second time (the first time being in the 1800’s). At its heart, this is a cross-cultural love story; however, some parts are difficult to read because they deal with mankind’s inhumanity toward his fellow men, women and children. I believe what we ignore or forget we are doomed to repeat. And this is a truly beautiful love story.
“Nineteen-fifteen is the year of the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About. The anniversary of its commencement – its centennial – is nearing. If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians…it’s not the sort of thing most of us read before going to bed.”
Laura Petrosian lives a comfortable New York suburban lifestyle. She grew up not thinking much about her heritage. Even though her father and his siblings nicknamed their parents’ home the Ottoman Annex, and she had an aunt who belly danced, she knows almost nothing about her Armenian heritage. Laura doesn’t find anything strange about that. Her husband is Italian and knows almost nothing about his Italian heritage either, aside from Sundays being lasagna day. It’s pretty much that way for all of America’s melting pot, she rationalizes. Why should she be any different?
Then she receives a phone call about a museum exhibit featuring her grandmother. She has no idea that she will uncover things in her past and the past of the Armenian people that will not only surprise her but shock her to her very core.
The year is 1915. Elizabeth Endicott is a Boston Brahmin. She has a degree from Mount Holyoke and has a history of falling for the wrong men. Her father is a successful banker who dabbles in philanthropy. He’s become involved with Friends of Armenia and has donated a large sum to help feed Armenian refugees in Turkey. The Armenian cause strikes a cord in Elizabeth. She takes some basic language courses in Armenian and nursing skills, determined to go with her father on his mission to Turkey.
Neither of them is prepared for what they find when they land in Turkey. Not only was their shipment of medicine and food commandeered or stolen by unknown parties but the heat and conditions are unbearable. They demand to see the refugees in the Aleppo camp before even going to their quarters at the American embassy.
What they find are women and small children so emaciated they are near death or have already died. There is no food for them and they lie in dirt and filth. They have been herded into a cattle-like compound at this way station on their way to a final camp, a camp most will not survive to reach and where they are told no one survives.
There are no men among the refugees because all have been shot or tortured until they died. Many of the women have been raped and many were also executed indiscriminately along the way from their villages to Aleppo. Anyone who fell behind was left to perish. Others simply dropped in their tracks because they were unable to withstand the brutal heat, and the lack of food and water.
Elizabeth cannot understand the callousness with which Turkish gendarmes treat the prisoners. She’s told some children are taken to an orphanage but many are taken away during the night to a cave where they are left to slowly suffocate and starve. Why would the Turks allow the children to live when they seem to be exterminating all of the adults?
Elizabeth, her father, the doctors and others at the American embassy are frantic to get help to the refugees but there are just too few of them and too few resources available to save most. A couple of German soldiers photograph the dead and dying, documenting who they were in hopes of smuggling the film out so the world can see what’s happening. Because the government has been so effective at blocking all news going out of Turkey, most people have no idea that an entire race is being systematically wiped off the face of the earth.
“…the Germans aren’t making fun of the Armenians; they are chronicling what they are seeing as if they are journalists…
‘Is this your camera?’ Ryan asks the lieutenant.
‘No, it’s Helmut’s,’ he answers…
‘The Turks can’t possibly be allowing you to photograph this,’ the American consul continues excitedly. ‘You know it’s illegal to take pictures of the refugees or the deportations. You could be jailed. Court-martialed.’
‘Obviously we have not advertised what we’re doing,’ Helmut answered. ‘We have not put up posters asking for models.’”
Still all Turks and all Muslims are not villains in this story. Elizabeth works with a wonderful Muslim doctor in the hospital who’s determined to save as many refugees as possible while flying under the government’s radar as long as possible. Other Turks also do what little they can without being branded traitors; however, most turn a blind eye out of fear or because they have bought the government’s propaganda. Nuns in the orphanage work diligently to restore as many children as possible, physically, mentally, and emotionally; however, they are overrun like everyone else trying to stem the tide of death.
And in the middle of this sea of despair, Elizabeth meets a young Armenian engineer, Armen, who has been spared temporarily because he has a talent for building bridges and railroads. He has been assigned to the German soldiers as labor. He came from the village of Van by way of Harput and, as each group of refugees arrives, he has searched desperately for news of his wife and their infant daughter.
“Now, in Aleppo, he just waits for the convoys of women, always hoping to find a group from Harput in which there might be someone who can tell him something more about the day his wife and child were herded into a convoy. He knows they are dead. He learned that when he returned to Harput…He wants to meet someone – anyone – who knew his wife and witnessed her smile before the world completely came apart.”
Armen and Elizabeth are irresistibly drawn to each other from the first moment that they meet. Against all odds, and despite their huge differences and her father’s disapproval, they are determined to be together somehow, somewhere, some way.
When the Germans get rousted for photographing the refugees, Armen knows he must flee so he goes back into the desert to enlist in the British army to fight the Turks. It’s a dangerous trip for someone with no passport; however, it’s what he must do to avenge his wife and daughter, and to end the eradication of his people. Elizabeth believes she has lost him for good but she refuses to leave Aleppo. When she learns the refugees she’s been helping will be marched into the desert again, she appeals to the American embassy to provide shelter for a woman and child she’s grown close to. It may be a drop in the bucket but she hopes she can at least spare these two certain death.
Still she does not hear from Armen, who has surely been sent to the front to fight the Turks. And she’s been told he won’t be allowed back into Turkey since joining the British, because he’ll be a double traitor as an Armenian and a soldier fighting the Turks. Will they ever see each other again? What is the haunting secret her granddaughter learns about them? How will learning about her roots affect Laura?
This is one of the most moving stories I have ever read. Although I have friends who are Armenian, and Southern California has a relatively large Armenian population, I had no idea these genocides had taken place. I felt ashamed that the world essentially turned a blind eye to what was happening to an entire race of people. At the same time, I felt such empathy for Armen and Elizabeth as well as for those refugees whose stories are told. As I said before, this is a love story at its heart and a story about family secrets.
Chris Bohjalian has brought a wealth of personal history and professional historical research to The Sandcastle Girls, and it shows. His writing style was so entrancing that I almost became convinced that Laura, who is portrayed as an author, had in fact written the book. Bottom Line: The Sandcastle Girls is an eloquently written story that lends dignity to the people it portrays. I highly recommend it. And one lucky reader is going to win a copy!
Can’t wait to read it?
The Sandcastle Girls was published on July 17, 2012, so it should be available from your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC of The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian!
Once you’ve enter our giveaway, click on the link just below the Rafflecopter form to check out all the other giveaways in the Vacation Reads Giveaway Hop!
1) The deadline for entries is Wednesday night, 7/25/2012, at 11:59pm EDST. No entries after that date/time will be eligible.
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