The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

the sandcastle girls by chris bohjalianChris Bohjalian calls the Armenian genocide in 1915 the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About in his novel, The Sandcastle Girls. He's correct. I know next to nothing about it. I know that it happened but even that I really only know because I had a friend in college who is of Armenian descent. I thought of her often while I was reading this book but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Sandcastle Girls is a novel that has a story within a story. In the modern day we see Laura -- an author and our narrator -- explaining to us why she is writing the story of her grandparents. Then we slip back into the the past and observe how her grandparents met. It's one of those stories where you suddenly find your family history is much deeper and darker than you ever imagined. As the First World War gets further and further from the present day, even those of us who know our grandparents or great-grandparents' stories may discover we didn't really know them at all. Some things were just not spoken of as a matter of course and the history die. Or at least we think it does.

For Laura, it starts with a photograph of an emaciated woman taken during the Armenian genocide. The woman in the photograph shared her last name. Is she a relative? She needs to know and what she discovers shocks her. The woman was her grandfather's first wife -- a wife she did not know existed. Her grandfather had escaped the Armenian genocide and married her American grandmother, who went to Aleppo in 1915 to try to provide aid.

Laura quickly discovers there was a whole lot of history that she never knew and that even her own father never knew. Her grandparents had corresponded with each other in 1915, plus her grandmother, Elizabeth, had written to the Friends of Armenia organization back in Boston, and that gave her a starting point. Those letters provided a wealth of history but, as always, they only tell one side of the story. What about the rest of it? How close did Armen and Karine come to seeing each other in Aleppo?

With so many questions that documents could not answer, Laura decides to write the story as she imagined it may have happened. It is beautifully done. You get just enough glimpses of their lives after 1915 to know that things work out -- for the most part -- yet you can't help but wonder how it all unravelled. Meanwhile, you learn how Laura unpeeled the layers and why it became so important to her to tell the story.

The story within a story concept, especially as it jumps between present and past, is not a new one but Bohjalian performs it masterfully in this case. Throughout the book I kept flipping to the cover material to remind myself that yes, this is a novel. No, the author's name really isn't Laura.

I've heard people suggest that you can't learn history though fiction. I get what they are saying to an extent. No, I can't learn the complete truth of history through fiction, but fiction can inspire me to seek out more information on a historical period that I had not thought to really study before. (Mind you, I can't learn the complete truth of history through a single non-fiction book or even through many non-fiction books but that's a whole other discussion.) The Sandcastle Girls a book you both wish was true and are relieved to find out it wasn't... but it could have been. The genocide did happen and we are coming close to the 100th anniversary of an event that many people do not know happened. Perhaps we can change that in the next three years?