The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian


“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” – Adolf Hitler, August 22, 1939

The above statement was a part of Hitler’s argument to support the genocide of the Jewish people, and I find it haunting. One because it speaks to the power of silence as consent, and two because my ancestors are Armenian.

I know very little of their history. I believe my great-great grandfather and perhaps a great-great uncle were beheaded. I know that my my great-great grandmother fled Turkey, with her remaining family when my great-grandmother Marie was an infant. I cannot remember where they first took refuge, I had thought it was Syria, but perhaps it was Egypt, but I do know that eventually they settled into France.

This is my great-grandmother, Marie, with her family. She is on the right holding a white purse.

I give you this background so you’ll understand why I was so excited to read this book (that and because my Aunt Janet lent it to me, which I thought was fun because a love for reading and an interest in cooking are two things we have in common).

So here is this book, The Sandcastle Girls, a story (historical fiction) of the Armenian genocide that took place before and during WWI. Specifically this story takes place in Aleppo, Syria, in 1915, where the surviving (and I use this term loosely) Armenian women and children are marched after there deportation from Turkey. They were marched across the dessert with little to no food or water, often stripped of their clothes and shoes, and this was the least of their horrors.

The story is told in 1st person by the granddaughter of an Armenian man and his American wife (whom meet, in the story, in Aleppo), and is also told in 3rd person by various other characters – including the Armenian man and the American woman (the grandmother and grandfather).

Genocides are hard stories to tell, and the details of these events can make books such as this very difficult to read. Chris Bohjalian manages to balance the horrific details, with a love story, and by pulling the reader back into a safer feeling future – providing much needed respite.

One of my favorite things about this book were snippets from the granddaughter about the Armenian culture. While my grandmother shared only small portions of her Armenian culture with us (the need to assimilate as an American war bride, perhaps?). Some things you probably can’t avoid growing up and experiencing if you are Armenian – for example, paklava and basturma…

Or that there’s a lot of garlic consumption…

Or, much to my consternation, we are a hairy people…

If you’ve read this far and you’re thinking, “The Armenian genocide, what’s that?” Then don’t feel too terribly bad, the book even refers to it as “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.” And as the book posits at the end:

“In any case, the short answer to that first question – How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing? – is really very simple. You kill them in the middle of nowhere.”

If you’d like a glimpse into this part of our world’s history, I highly recommend this book. Also, if you liked Sarah’s Key, then you will definitely enjoy this book.


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