The Sandcastle Girls

( 96 )

Overview

When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. It’s 1915, and Elizabeth has volunteered to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian Genocide during the First World War. There she meets Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. After leaving Aleppo and traveling into Egypt to join the British Army, he begins to write Elizabeth ...

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The Sandcastle Girls: A Novel

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Overview

When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. It’s 1915, and Elizabeth has volunteered to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian Genocide during the First World War. There she meets Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. After leaving Aleppo and traveling into Egypt to join the British Army, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, realizing that he has fallen in love with the wealthy young American.
 
Years later, their American granddaughter, Laura, embarks on a journey back through her family’s history, uncovering a story of love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Inspired by his grandparents' background, [Bohjalian] explores the suffering and atrocities of that time with astounding precision, compassion and grace…Bohjalian deftly weaves the many threads of this story back and forth from past to present, from abuse to humanity, from devastation to redemption. His ability to add irony and wit makes the contrasting horrors even more intense. And his unblinking descriptions of atrocities are staggering…Rather than repelling the reader, Bohjalian's account makes the gruesome truth utterly riveting.
—Eugenia Zukerman
From the Publisher
“Masterful . . . a near-perfect work of historical fiction. . . . The contemporary and historical sections each have a different flavor, but both are well written and engaging with interesting, three-dimensional characters. . . . Enlightening.” —Book Browse
 
“Compelling . . . Deftly mixing fact and fiction . . . Bohjalian weaves the story like threads in a rug, each thread adding color and shadow to a scene. . . . [S]o filled is it with the suspense of life and death that The Sandcastle Girls is difficult to categorize. The story is fiction, but is true. It's history, but it's also art." —Diane Scharper, The Weekly Standard

"It takes a talented novelist to combine fully ripened characters, an engrossing storyline, exquisite prose and set it against a horrific historical backdrop—in this case, the Armenian Genocide—and completely enchant readers. The prolific and captivating Chris Bohjalian has done it all—again—with The Sandcastle Girls. . . . Seamless . . . A fascinating journey through time and history." Kim Curtis, The Associated Press
 
"Sober, elegiac, and respectful. . . . A fiction like Bohjalian's [has the] power to reach legions of readers." —Margot Harrison, Seven Days

“A sweeping love story . . . Toggling between two eras, Bohjalian paints a vivid portrayal of love and pain and the strength to survive each. At once heartbreaking and hopeful, The Sandcastle Girls is a mesmerizing work of historical fiction influenced by the author’s heritage and driven by a romance so beautiful and believable it hurts." —Nicholas Addison Thomas, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
 
“Bohjalian is a literary novelist unafraid to reference Proust's madeleine and expect readers to get it. But his books are also filled with artfully drawn characters and great, passionate storytelling. The Sandcastle Girls is all that, but different, more powerful. . . . Handled with such skill that it seems perfect.” —Curt Schleier, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A searing, tautly woven tale of war and the legacy it leaves behind. . . . A nuanced, sophisticated portrayal of what it means not only to endure, but to insist on hope.” —Nathalie Gorman, Oprah.com  

“Remarkably supple . . . Moment by moment, and passage by passage, the novel lights up a disturbing period of history.” —Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch
 
“Telescopic . . . Because of Bohjalian’s writing style, which never rings a false note as it moves from present-day New York to the tragedy of World War I, his characters are as real as our own relatives. The well-researched history that forms the background informs, intrigues and enchants—even as recollections of horror mount . . . [A] story of love, world history and the human condition.” —Brandy Hilboldt Allport, The Florida Times-Union

"A compelling new novel that is part love story, part history lesson . . . An eye-opening tale of longing and discovery [and] bittersweet reflection on hope even in the darkest circumstances. . . . Bohjalian’s book is about the ways the past informs the present, about the pain but also the richness of heritage. . . . Remarkable."  —Amy Driscoll, The Miami Herald

“Bohjalian deftly weaves the many threads of this story back and forth from past to present, from abuse to humanity, from devastation to redemption. His ability to add irony and wit makes the contrasting horrors even more intense. . . . Staggering [and] utterly riveting . . . [A] valuable and powerful piece of evidence pointing to the undeniable.” —Eugenia Zukerman, The Washington Post
 
“Stirring . . . The Sandcastle Girls wraps the threads of a significant historic event around a deeply moving story of survival and enduring love.” —Carol Memmott, USA Today
 
“Cool and lucid . . . With Armen and Elizabeth, Bohjalian has fulfilled the duty of anyone seeking to document a genocide—he ensures that we don’t look away.” —Julie Wittes Schlack, The Boston Globe

“Dead-solid perfect. Bohjalian is a literary novelist unafraid to reference Proust's madeleine and expect readers to get it. But his books are also filled with artfully drawn characters and great, passionate storytelling. The Sandcastle Girls is all that, but different, more powerful.” —Curt Schleier, The Seattle Times
 
“Bohjalian—the grandson of Armenian survivors—pours passion, pride, and sadness into his tale of ethnic destruction and endurance.” —Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
 
“[A] great read . . . An affecting tale set at the time of a lesser-known holocaust, 1915’s Armenian genocide.” —People

"Chris Bohjalian is at his very finest in this searing story of love and war. I was mesmerized from page one. Bravo!" —Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
 
"In his latest novel, master storyteller Chris Bohjalian explores the ways in which our ancestral past informs our contemporary lives—in ways we understand and ways that remain mysteriously out of reach. The Sandcastle Girls is deft, layered, eye-opening, and riveting. I was deeply moved." —Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed 

"Bohjalian's powerful novel . . . depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist's quest to uncover her heritage. . . . His storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read." —Publishers Weekly

“Bohjalian powerfully narrates an intricately nuanced romance with a complicated historical event at the forefront. With the centennial of the Armenian genocide fast approaching, this is not to be missed. Simply astounding.” —Julie Kane, Library Journal (starred)

"An unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"A powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling." —Elizabeth Dickie, Booklist

Library Journal
Repeatedly (and embarrassingly accurately) referred to here as "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About," the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 takes center stage in Bohjalian's (The Night Strangers) intergenerational novel. Elizabeth Endicott, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate, accompanies her Bostonian banker father on his philanthropic mission to Aleppo, Syria, to aid Armenian refugees fleeing atrocities committed by the Ottoman government. Her friendship with Armenian engineer Armen, who has lost his wife and baby daughter, flourishes when they are apart and can only communicate in letters. Years later, Laura Petrosian, seeking out a photograph of a woman rumored to be her Armenian grandmother, uncovers these letters among a wealth of documents—a treasure trove for an Armenian American novelist searching for pieces of her family history. VERDICT Bohjalian powerfully narrates an intricately nuanced romance with a complicated historical event at the forefront. With the centennial of the Armenian genocide fast approaching, this is not to be missed. Simply astounding.—Julie Kane, Sweet Briar Coll. Lib., VA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307743916
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/16/2013
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 49,347
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of fifteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Double Bind, The Night Strangers, and Skeletons at the Feast. His novel Midwives was a number one New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of Eden, Midwives, and Past the Bleachers). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

www.doubleday.com www.chrisbohjalian.com

Biography

It was March 1986 when Chris Bohjalian made a decision that would have an incalculable impact on his writing. He and his wife had just hailed a taxi home to Brooklyn after a party in Manhattan's East Village when they suddenly found themselves on a wild and terrifying 45-minute ride. The crazed cabbie, speeding through red lights and ignoring stop signs, ultimately dropped the shaken couple off... in front of a crack house being stormed by the police. It was then that Bohjalian and his wife decided that the time had come to flee the city for pastoral Vermont. This incident and the couple's subsequent move to New England not only inspired a series of columns titled "Idyll Banter" (later compiled into a book of the same name), but a string of books that would cause Bohjalian to be hailed as one of the most humane, original, and beloved writers of his time.

While Bohjalian's Manhattan murder mystery A Killing in the Real World was a somewhat quiet debut, follow-up novels (many of which are set in his adopted state) have established him as a writer to watch. A stickler for research, he fills his plotlines with rich, historically accurate details. But he never loses sight of what really draws readers into a story: multi-dimensional characters they can relate to.

The selection of his 1997 novel Midwives for Oprah's Book Club established Bohjalian as a force to be reckoned with, igniting a string of critically acclaimed crowd pleasers. His literary thriller The Double Bind was a Barnes & Noble Recommends pick in 2007.

Good To Know

Bohjalian's fascination with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald extends beyond the author's prominent influence on The Double Bind. In an interview with Loaded Shelf.com, Bohjalian estimated that he owns "at least 42 different editions of books by or about F. Scott Fitzgerald."

. Two of Chris Bojalian's novels have been adapted into critically acclaimed TV movies. An adaptation of Past the Bleachers with Richard Dean Anderson was made in 1995, and a version of Midwives starring Sissy Spacek and Peter Coyote debuted in 2001.

In our interview with Bohjalian, he shared some fascinating and fun facts about himself:

"I was the heaviest child, by far, in my second-grade class. My mother had to buy my pants for me at a store called the "Husky Boys Shop," and still she had to hem the cuffs up around my knees. I hope this experience, traumatizing as it was, made me at least marginally more sensitive to people around me."

"I have a friend with Down syndrome, a teenage boy who is capable of remembering the librettos from entire musicals the first or second time he hears them. The two of us belt them out together whenever we're driving anywhere in a car.

"I am a pretty avid bicyclist. The other day I was biking alone on a thin path in the woods near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and suddenly before me I saw three bears. At first I saw only two, and initially I thought they were cats. Then I thought they were dogs. Finally, just as I was approaching them and they started to scurry off the path and into the thick brush, I understood they were bears. Bear cubs, to be precise. Which is exactly when their mother, no more than five or six feet to my left, reared up on her hind legs, her very furry paws and very sharp claws raised above her head in a gesture that an optimist might consider a wave and guy on a bike might consider something a tad more threatening. Because she was standing on a slight incline, I was eye level with her stomach -- an eventual destination that seemed frighteningly plausible. I have never biked so fast in my life in the woods. I may never have biked so fast in my life on a paved road."

"I do have hobbies -- I garden and bike, for example -- but there's nothing in the world that gives me even a fraction of the pleasure that I derive from hanging around with my wife and daughter."

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    1. Hometown:
      Lincoln, Vermont
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      White Plains, New York
    1. Education:
      Amherst College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The young woman, twenty-one, walks gingerly down the dusty street between her father and the American consul here in Aleppo, an energetic fellow almost her father’s age named Ryan Donald Martin, and draws the scarf over her hair and her cheeks. The men are detouring around the square near the base of the citadel because they don’t yet want her to see the deportees who arrived here last night--there will be time for that soon enough--but she fears she is going to be sick anyway. The smell of rotting flesh, excrement, and the July heat are conspiring to churn her stomach far worse than even the trip across the Atlantic had weeks earlier. She feels clammy and weak-kneed and reaches out for her father’s elbow to steady herself. Her father, in turn, gently taps her fingers with his hand, his vague and abstracted attempt at a comforting gesture.

“Miss Endicott, do you need to rest? You look a little peaked,” the consul says, and she glances at him. His brown eyes are wide and a little crazed, and already there are thin rivulets of sweat running down both sides of his face. He is wearing a beige linen jacket, which she imagines to be infinitely more comfortable than her father’s gray woolen suit. She brings her free hand to her own face and feels the moisture there. She nods in response to his question; she does need to sit, though it embarrasses her to admit this. Still, it may be a nonissue. She can’t see where she might on this squalid street. But Ryan quickly takes her arm and guides her from her father, leading her to a stoop on the shady side of the thin road. He wipes off the squat step with his bare hand. There is a ramshackle wooden door behind the stoop, shut tight against the midmorning heat, but she presumes that whoever lives there won’t mind if she sits. And so there she rests and breathes in deeply and slowly through her mouth, watching the women in their headscarves and long, loose robes--some hide all but their eyes behind burqas--and the men in their ornate blazers, their voluminous, shapeless trousers, and their flowerpot-like fez hats. Some of the men glance at her sympathetically as they pass, others with a brazen want in their eyes. She has been warned.

“There’s a nice breeze today,” Ryan says cheerfully, and while she appreciates the slightly cooler air, wafting along with it is the stench from the square. “Before you arrived, the heat was just unbearable.”

She can’t imagine it being hotter. At the moment, she can’t imagine anywhere being hotter. And yet she found their apartment last night unexpectedly comfortable after the endless weeks aboard a ship, then a horse-drawn carriage, and finally two train cars that boasted only wooden seats. It was warm, but she had stood at her window for nearly half an hour in the middle of the night, gazing out at the row of statuesque cypress on the hill beyond the American compound and the bower of trees just inside the walls. She saw more stars than she ever saw in Boston, and the half moon seemed to dangle eerily, beautifully close to the earth.

Her father is surveying the rows of sand-colored two-story buildings that curl toward an alley, his arms folded across his chest, his face stern, and then she notes him arch his back suddenly and stand up a little straighter. Ryan sees what he sees and murmurs just loud enough for her to hear, “Oh, Jesus, no. Not more.” Both Ryan and her father glance down at her, but they realize there is absolutely nothing they can do; there is not a way in the world to shield her from what is coming. Besides, this is why she is here, isn’t it? Didn’t she volunteer to be a part of this aid mission? To chronicle what she sees for their organization, the Friends of Armenia, and to volunteer at the hospital--to do, in essence, whatever she could to help? Still, discomfort leaches from both men like perspiration, and she finds it interesting that they are as embarrassed as they are disgusted. If they had been here alone--if she had remained back at the American compound--her father and the American consul now would be experiencing only rage. And so she presses the palm of her hand against the wall of the house, the stone unexpectedly cool, and rises.

Approaching from down the street is a staggering column of old women, and she is surprised to observe they are African. She stares, transfixed. She thinks of the paintings and drawings she has seen of American slave markets in the South from the 1840s and 1850s, though weren’t those women and men always clothed--if only in rags? These women are completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair. And it is the hair, long and straight though filthy and impossibly tangled, that causes her to understand that these women are white--at least they were once--and they are, in fact, not old at all. Many might be her age or even a little younger. All are beyond modesty, beyond caring. Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering and, even at this distance, malodorous. 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 and wonders how in the name of God their bony legs can support them. Their breasts are lost to their ribs. The bones of their hips protrude like baskets.

“Elizabeth, you don’t need to watch,” her father is saying, but she does. She does.

Herding the women forward through the town are half a dozen young men, two on horseback who look nearly as weak as the women, and four walking beside the group. All of them have rifles slung over their shoulders. They, too, don’t look any older than Elizabeth, and it crosses her mind that the pair nearest her can’t be more than fifteen or sixteen; their moustaches are wisps, a boy’s attempt to look like a man.

Just before the group reaches them, the gendarmes guide the women down the narrow street that will lead eventually to the square beneath the citadel, where they will be deposited with the deportees who arrived here yesterday. The men are short-tempered and tired. They strike the women when they move slowly or clumsily. They yank them back to their feet by their hair when they collapse. Elizabeth tries to count the women as they turn to the right and disappear into the alley, but reflexively she looks away whenever one of the skeletons meets her eye. Still, she guesses there are at least 125 of them. She verbalizes the number aloud without thinking.

“I assure you, Miss Endicott,” says Ryan, “when that group left Zeitun or Adana or wherever, there were at least a thousand of them.”

“Why did the Turks take their clothes?” she asks him.

He shakes his head. “They don’t usually--unless they’re planning to kill them. Sometimes they take the men’s clothes immediately before executing them; they worry the clothes of the dead are defiled. But I have no idea why they did in this case. Degrade the survivors, maybe. Perhaps increase the chances they’ll die on their own in the sun. But don’t look for reason in any of this.”

“And where are the men?”

He dabs at his forehead with a handkerchief. “It’s safe to assume they’re dead. Either they were--” He doesn’t finish because her father glares at the consul to be silent. To be still. Her father is hoping to introduce her to this world gradually. In increments. They discussed it little on either the ship or the train. Generalities of Ottoman history only.

Later this month, the two doctors in their party will arrive and they will start work. They--along with a returning missionary named Alicia Wells--telegrammed that their ship was going to be delayed leaving Boston, and might then take a more roundabout course to avoid U‑boats. But whether the physicians are delayed two weeks or three might make all the difference in the world for some of the survivors who are brought here. These women, she presumes, will be long gone by then, marched back into the desert to one of the resettlement camps to the southeast. So will the group that is already in the square, the women and children who staggered in from the desert yesterday.

In the meantime, Elizabeth can’t imagine what in the name of God she--what anyone--can do for them. Still, after catching her breath, she and her father and the American consul decide that instead of spending lunch discussing the conditions in Aleppo and planning for the arrival of the rest of their group, they will follow these woeful deportees down the alley and into the square, and there see what they can do to help.

Ryan Martin leaves to find rags for the women to wear, but by the time he returns with a wagon of tattered dresses and blouses--remnants from the dead who have passed through Aleppo that summer--the newly arrived deportees already have been clothed by the other refugees. In the meantime, Elizabeth and a nurse from the hospital pick at the vermin on the women and clean the gaping wounds on their legs and ankles and feet. They ration the little calamine lotion and olive oil they have for those women whose sunburns have not seared deep into their flesh, and gently wash the wounds of those whose skin--especially on their shoulders and backs--has peeled off like a snake’s. Within minutes they finish off the one large bottle of iodine the nurse has brought. Elizabeth gives the deportees water and bowls of thin bulgur soup to eat, because it is all they can scare up at the moment. There may be bread tomorrow. She feels helpless. When she was given her nursing training back in Boston, no one prepared her for dysentery. For gangrene. For feet with bones splintered from weeks of walking barefoot, the toes and heels swollen and mangled and deformed.

Most of the women are clustered underneath makeshift tents--canvas pulled tight on tottering wooden poles--but there are more women than there is room, so they spread out beyond the tent when the sun is no longer overhead and there are long stripes of comforting black shade. The children--among whom the only males in this new group can be found--remind her of dead sea horses she once saw on the beach at Cape Cod: The children, like the sea horses, are curled up on their sides and their bones seem as brittle and sharp as the shells of the dried pipefish. Perhaps a quarter mile away is a hospital, primitive by Boston standards, but a hospital nonetheless. It infuriates Elizabeth that there is, apparently, no room for these women there, and so far not a single doctor has emerged from the building and offered to help. Ryan has tried to mollify her by telling her that the vast majority of the beds there are filled with Armenian women and children, but this reality too has left her seething inside.

The number of deportees who speak either English or French surprises Elizabeth, though most are too tired right now to talk. Nevertheless, there is a woman who looks to be in her fifties but Elizabeth suspects is actually half that age, who murmurs “thank you” in English as she takes the bowl of soup and brings it to her lips.

“You’re welcome,” Elizabeth says. “I wish it were a more substantial meal.”

The woman shrugs. “You’re American,” she observes, a statement. She is wearing a man’s shirt and a skirt that balloons around her like a sack.

“Yes. My name is Elizabeth.”

“I’m Nevart,” the Armenian offers, and Elizabeth carefully rolls the name around in her mind. A small girl sleeps beside the woman, the child’s collarbone rising and falling ever so slightly with each breath. Elizabeth guesses that she is seven or eight. “Where in America?” Nevart asks.

“Boston,” Elizabeth answers. “It’s in the state of Massachusetts.” The woman’s nails are as brown as her skin. “Sip that soup slowly,” she adds.

Nevart nods and places the bowl in her lap. “I know where Boston is,” she says. “I heard you speaking Armenian a minute ago. How much do you know?”

“A little. Very little, actually. I know mostly vocabulary. I know words, not grammar.” Then Elizabeth asks the woman, “How did you learn English?”

“My husband went to college in London. He was a doctor.”

Elizabeth thinks about this, imagining this wraith of a woman living in England. As if Nevart can read her mind, the deportee continues, “I wasn’t with him most of the time. I have been to London, but only for a visit.” She sighs and looks into Elizabeth’s eyes. “I’m not going to die,” she murmurs, and she almost sounds disappointed.

“No, of course, you won’t. I know that.” Elizabeth hopes she sounds reassuring. She honestly isn’t sure whether this woman will live.

“You’re just saying that. But I know it because I was a doctor’s wife. I have survived dysentery. Starvation. Dehydration. They . . . never mind what they did to me. I am still alive.”

“Is that your little girl?” Elizabeth asks.

The woman shakes her head. “No,” she answers, gently massaging the child’s neck. “This is Hatoun. Like me, she is unkillable.”

Elizabeth wants to ask about the woman’s husband, but she doesn’t dare. The man is almost certainly dead. Likewise, she wonders if Nevart has lost her children as well, but again she knows no good can come from this inquiry. Wouldn’t the Armenian have said something about her own children if they were with her now--if they were alive?

Over the woman’s shoulder Elizabeth spies her father in the distance. He is ladling out the soup from a black cauldron and handing it to the women strong enough to stand and bring it to those who are collapsed under the tent. His sideburns and his beard, so much thicker and grayer than the thin whorls of cinnamon atop his scalp, look almost white in this light. They are expecting flour and sugar and tea in the next day or so--the first of two shipments they have arranged this month--though Ryan has warned her father and her that it is likely only a small fraction of what they have acquired will actually arrive in Aleppo.

“Where do we go next?” Nevart asks her. “They brought us here, but they won’t let us stay.”

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Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide
 
The Sandcastle Girls
A Novel
By Chris Bohjalian
New York Times bestselling author of Midwives
Doubleday Hardcover ISBN 978-0-385-53479-6
 
To invite the author for a speakerphone or Skype chat with your reading group, visit his website at http://www.chrisbohjalian.com/reading-group-center.
 
Critical Acclaim for The Sandcastle Girls:
“Chris Bohjalian is at his very finest in this searing story of love and war. I was mesmerized from page one. Bravo!”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“In his latest novel, master storyteller Chris Bohjalian explores the ways in which our ancestral past informs our contemporary lives—in ways we understand and ways that remain mysteriously out of reach. The Sandcastle Girls is deft, layered, eye-opening, and riveting. I was deeply moved.”—Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed

“Bohjalian's powerful novel . . . depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist's quest to uncover her heritage. . . . His storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read.”—Publishers Weekly

“Bohjalian powerfully narrates an intricately nuanced romance with a complicated historical event at the forefront. With the centennial of the Armenian genocide fast approaching, this is not to be missed. Simply astounding.”—Julie Kane, Library Journal (starred)

“An unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“A powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling.” Elizabeth Dickie, Booklist

Introduction
Over the years, bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys, ranging from the Vermont farmhouse in Midwives, where a homebirth goes tragically wrong on an icy winter’s night, to the precarious world of Poland and Germany at the close of World War II in Skeletons at the Feast. In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian takes us to a time and place—Syria, 1915—that left haunting legacies for his Armenian heritage, making this his most personal novel to date.
 
A sweeping historical love story, The Sandcastle Girls introduces us to Elizabeth Endicott, an adventure-seeking graduate of Mount Holyoke College who travels to Syria just as the Great War has begun to spread across Europe. With only a crash course in nursing, Elizabeth has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the genocide. She soon befriends a striking Armenian engineer. He is young, but he has already lost his wife and infant daughter to Turkish brutality. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British army in Egypt, he and Elizabeth begin a daring correspondence, bridging their very different worlds with words of love and hope.
 
Interwoven with their tale is the story of Laura Petrosian, a contemporary 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.
 
An epic story of love and war, The Sandcastle Girls will captivate your reading group. We hope this guide will enrich your discussion.
 
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Though The Sandcastle Girls is a novel, author Chris Bohjalian (and fictional narrator Laura Petrosian) based their storytelling on meticulous research. What can a novel reveal about history that a memoir or history book cannot? Before reading The Sandcastle Girls, what did you know about the Armenian genocide? How does this history broaden your understanding of current events in the regions surrounding Armenia?
 
2. What lies at the heart of Armen and Elizabeth’s attraction to each other, despite their seemingly different backgrounds? What gives their love the strength to transcend distance and danger?
 
3. The novel includes characters such as Dr. Akcam, Helmut, and Orhan, who take great risks opposing the atrocities committed by their superiors; Bohjalian does not cast the “enemy” as uniformly evil. What do these characters tell us about the process of resistance? What separates them from the others, who become capable of horrific, dehumanizing acts?
 
4. Discuss the bond between Nevart and Hatoun. What do they demonstrate about the traits, and the trauma, of a survivor? How do they redefine motherhood and childhood?
 
5. Bohjalian is known for creating inventive, authentic narrators for his novels, ranging from a midwife to a foster child. Why was it important for The Sandcastle Girls to be told primarily from the point of view of a woman? How was your reading affected by the knowledge that the author is a man?
 
6. In chapter 9, Elizabeth courageously quotes the Qur’an to appeal to the conscience of the Turkish lieutenant. What diplomacy lessons are captured in that moment? For the novel’s characters—from aid workers to Armenians who tried to convert—what is the role of religion?
 
7. When Laura describes the music of her 1960s youth, her steamy relationship with Berk, her belly-dancing aunt, and other cultural memories, what is she saying about the American experience of immigration and assimilation? Culturally, what did her grandfather sacrifice in order to gain security and prosperity in America?
 
8. Discuss the various aid workers depicted in the novel. What motivated them to assist in this particular cause? Do Alicia, Sister Irmingard, and Elizabeth achieve similar outcomes despite their different approaches? What overseas populations would you be willing to support so courageously?
 
9. Does Ryan Martin use his power effectively? How does Elizabeth gain power in a time period and culture that was marked by the oppression of women?
 
10. The vivid scenes of Gallipoli bring to life the global nature of war over the past century.
 As Armen fights alongside Australians, what do we learn about the power and the vulnerabilities of multinational forces? What did it mean for his fellow soldiers to fight for a cause so far removed from their own homelands, and for his own countrymen to rely on the mercy of outsiders?
 
11. At the end of chapter 19, does Elizabeth make the right decision? How would you have reacted in the wake of a similar tragedy?
 
12. How do Laura’s discoveries enrich her sense of self? Discuss your own heritage and its impact on your identity. How much do you know about your parents’ and grandparents’ upbringing? What immigration stories are part of your own family’s collective memory?
 
13. As she tries to explain why so few people are aware of the Armenian genocide, Laura cites the fact that the victims perished in a remote desert. The novel also describes the problem of trying to document the atrocities using the cumbersome photography equipment of the day. Will the Information Age spell the end of such cover-ups? For future generations, will genocide be unimaginable? 
 
14. Which aspects of The Sandcastle Girls remind you of previous Bohjalian novels you have enjoyed?
 
About the Author
Chris Bohjalian is the author of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Night Strangers, Secrets of Eden, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, Before You Know Kindness, The Law of Similars, and Midwives. He won the New England Book Award in 2002, and his novel Midwives was a selection of Oprah's Book Club. His work has been translated into over 25 languages and twice before become movies (“Secrets of Eden,” “Midwives” and “Past the Bleachers”). He has also written for a wide variety of magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and he has been a Sunday columnist for Gannett's Burlington Free Press since 1992. A graduate of Amherst College, Bohjalian lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.
 
Guide written by Amy Clements
 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 96 )
Rating Distribution

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4 Star

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(13)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 96 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Bohjalian beautifully brings this story to life, painting a tale and characters that will forever be etched in my heart.

    Inspired by his own family history Bohjalian brings this tale to life through the fictional character Laura Petrosian. She lives in present day America and is seeking information about her Armenian heritage and her late grandparents. Through her, Bohjalian takes us on a journey to Aleppo, Syria in the year 1915. American, Elizabeth Endicott, has just arrived with her father. They have come to assist the Armenian League of America. Thousands of refugees are pouring into Syria to escape the terror. Some are marched in by Turkish soldiers. Mostly woman and children; they are emancipated, naked and burned from the blazing sun. Here Elizabeth, her father and others work to save as many lives as they can. It is also here that Elizabeth will meet Armen. He is an Armenian who survived the onslaught in Aon. His wife wife and daughter are believed to be dead. He is an engineer and is in Aleppo with soldiers working on railroads. The tale that unfolds transports us back and forth as Laura shares the story of what occurred in Aleppo and the grandparents she knew in America. Bohjalian weaves a tale that both opens your eyes to the tragedy the occurred and has you falling in love with the characters he has created. I literally consumed this novel as the tale swept me up. It is one, I will talk about, recommend, and remember forever. The characters while fictional could just as easily have been real as Bohjalian weaves them through this time in history. I liked the narrator Laura. She was honest and feisty and brought such an air of authenticity to this story. She is someone I would like to share a cup of coffee with. Elizabeth while educated, caring and capable..is something of a wild child. I adored her and the way she stepped in to help. Armen’s story is touching and I was amazed at how he kept it together. Events revealed to us, shape the man he becomes and the grandfather Laura will come to admire. We met other characters in Aleppo that touched my heart. One in particular a nine year old girl named Hatoun. She survived the desert with the help of Nevert, but not before witnessing the horrific murder of her mother and sister. Karin’s story moved me to unspeakable tears. We meet allies and brave people who helped to get the story out. Bohjalian’s world building was spectacular and eerily surreal. Already a proven artist, it is evident that he poured his heart and soul into these pages. He brings this dark, ominous, evil time in history to life all while shining a light on the good of those who tried to aid the Armenian’s plight. His characters have such depth that I find it hard to believe they didn’t exist. He painstakingly portrayed these horrific atrocities against human life. Even in the darkest corners of my mind I cannot fathom how any human could commit such acts. Please understand that while the events occurring in this novel are dark, the author also brings light and joy into the tale. Through his characters, I laughed, giggled and experienced moments of true joy. The romance that spanned a lifetime was beautiful, bittersweet and left me feeling warm and fuzzy. I highly recommend this thought provoking saga to fans of historical fiction. Anyone who wants to learn more about what historians and politicians covered up for the sake of allies and diplomatic ties should read The Sandcastle Girls. Bohjalian is forever on my auto-buy list and I look forward to his next endeavor. Bravo and well done Chris! I want to thank Knopf Publis

    38 out of 41 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 31, 2012

    It is about time we can read about the Armenian Genocide and see

    It is about time we can read about the Armenian Genocide and see the book listed in the New York Times bestsellers list! I have been reading books by Mr. Bohjalian for years now, and had been waiting for this one!
    Beautifully written as the story unfolds and captures its audience. I could not put it down. I have bought five copies and given it to my close relatives and friends. Every Armenian should have a copy of this book on their bookshelf to pass down through the generations. Bravo Mr Bohjalian, and thank you!

    12 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 27, 2012

    Joy, hope, love, death, life... The Sandcastle Girls.... on many

    Joy, hope, love, death, life... The Sandcastle Girls.... on many occassions, the tragic descriptions of the Armenian refugees barely surviving un-conceivable human suffering perpetrated by the Turkish soliders moved me to tears. Chris Bohjalian keeps the wording simple and with detailed images brings each and everyone to life. I didn't want the book to end. I'll be buying more books during the holidays to give as gifts....it's a story that is worthy to be read and retold for generations to come!

    10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2012

    A powerful novel--Bohjalian at his best!

    I read The Sandcastle Girls in one day. I am still reeling from it. It is one of those very rare novels that will bombard you with a barrage of emotions and thoughts every time you look at the book on your shelf. I highly recommend it!

    9 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2012

    Bojahlian on top of his game. Couldn't put it down.

    Bojahlian on top of his game. Couldn't put it down.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 21, 2012

    This is one of the most hauntingly beautiful stories I have evry

    This is one of the most hauntingly beautiful stories I have evry read. It will forever be on my favorites list. Thank you, Mr. Bohjalian, for telling this story. It was obviously written from the heart.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2012

    Only a writer of consummate skill and imagination can present a

    Only a writer of consummate skill and imagination can present a story with such delicate balance. Although set among scenes of horrific ugliness, Bohjalian educates us to the real-life horror of the time while still inspiring us with a story of hope and salvation. I predict this book will become required reading in history and English classes. Bohjalian has written many excellent books, but this one is a notch higher than any of his others because of the importance of the topic and the the factual basis.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2012

    An awesome novel (based on historical facts) of human suffering,

    An awesome novel (based on historical facts) of human suffering, destruction, carnage, survival, hope, love and new beginnings. Chris Bohjalian is elegant in his narrative, clear in his descriptions and immensely effective and brilliant in the way he weaves between the events of 1915-1916 and the present time. Bravo, Bravo, and bravo!

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2012

    Sample

    Read the sample, awesome beginning, cant wait to read the rest.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2013

    Very readable examination of a terrible event

    We read this for our Book Group and found it very thought provoking. Few Americans have heard of the Armenian Massacre of 1915 and I hope this book will correct that and cause people to research that piece of history which still comes up today in the EU and UN as Turkey still denies it took place.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 16, 2013

    Slow in the beginning, definitely an eye-opener on this tragic p

    Slow in the beginning, definitely an eye-opener on this tragic piece of history. I would recommend this more as an educational history ready, rather than fiction and embedded romance. Not a book to lose yourself in and escape into romantic fiction!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 5, 2012

    Highly Recommend - you must check it out!

    It is a sad story set during the time of the Armenian Genocide. Yet during those disturbing times a beautiful love is formed, which also endures its hardships.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2012

    OMG!!! Historical fiction at it's best!!

    This story takes you in many different directions, but ultimately culminates with everything returning full circle. I recommend doing what I did by highlighting words, dates, phrases, and places and researching them as you read the story. (If you are well versed in Middle Eastern history and culture this might not be necessary.)

    I was amazed with the depth and strength of all the characters involved. Yes, this story is fictional. However, the Armenian genocide happened and this story gives a glimpse into the horrors the survivors had to endure during that time period.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2012

    An unforgettable story

    I was moved beyond words when I finished reading this poignant novel. Thank you Mr. Bohjalian for this unforgettable story, I will carry these characters in my heart as long as I live.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2012

    Recommended read.

    Book was very good. Made you understand the struggle of the Armenians. I feel it is a book one should read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2012

    Review

    Excellent characters that the reader can relate and thought provoking storyline.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2012

    The Cold, Hard Truth

    The Sandcastle Girls brings the world to reality for the Armenian population in 1915. The novel does a fine job of describing the atrocities that happened to the Armenians. I felt I had a much better understanding and clearer picture of this event that has rarely been recognized or discussed. As for the story itself, I was underwhelmed. There was a lot of violence, death, and sadness. Bohjalian was "keeping it real." Although there was somewhat of a love story thread, it took a backseat. I have read many historical novels that are difficult to read due to the facts of the time and place. What helps get me through is a nice solid love story. I didn't get that from this book. If the author was looking to lay the cards on the table, and tell his story for the sake of the world knowing the history, then it was very good. For people who want to remove themselves from their current reality, and enter more of a fantasy world, you won't get that from this book. I also felt that I did not know the characters that well. The too were secondary to telling the history.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2013

    A piece of history unbeknownst to me!

    This book was recommended to me by a fellow book lover. Once I sat down, there was no putting this book down. I felt so uneducated, I never knew about the Armenian massacre! The story was difficult to read due to the subject matter but the impact on the entire family from the parents' experience was so beautifully told, loved this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2012

    a real awakening

    I liked this book very much. I have read other books by Bohjalian and I love the way he writes. But this one was a true revelation to me, knowing nothing about the 1915 genocide of the Armenians. Very well aware of the Holocaust in Germany through my own family's heritage and history I know how important it is to make the world aware of these hateful crimes that continue today. This one, done in the form of a novel with characters we can feel for, including an underlying romance, made it easy to read and stay with. Bravo.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 24, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A wonderful heartbreaking book

    when I think of this book, all that comes to me is Karine. My heart aches for her suffering and yes there were millions but, they are all of them in the end... Karine.
    This is a heartbreaking story of a genocide I was not familiar with and for that reason alone a miracle and blessing Chris has written about it. This is a story no one should ever forget about, and on that note...
    This is a story about a young woman in 1915, Elizabeth Endicott who is traveling with her father to Aleppo to assist with the Armenian league of America with the thousands of refugees flooding into Syria from Turkey where a mass genocide is occurring.
    there are many intertwining stories in this book but the main one is about the love between Elizabeth, Armen and Karine
    It is in Aleppo that Elizabeth meets Armen, an Armenian engineer who has lost his wife and young daughter in the carnage. They begin tentatively to correspond when Armen goes to Egypt to join the British army and they slowly through their letters fall in love.
    This story will grab you by the short hairs and not let you go until you are either in tears or at the end of the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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