Chris Bohjalian seeks out difficult subjects. His novels are unique. His novels are passionate. His novels make the horror of violence in the world a series of human interactions. From Skeletons at the Feast to Before You Know Kindness and The Double Bind, he does not use gratuitous violence. Instead, he puts forth the truth, offsetting the sickening carnage with characters who are changed and strengthened by bearing witness to man's inhumanity to man.
In The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian takes us to Aleppo in 1915. A young American, Elizabeth Endicott, has come to assist the Armenian League of America with the thousands of refugees pouring into Syria from the genocide in Turkey. The Armenians who arrive are nearly dead. Elizabeth possesses few practical skills, except that she can write a discrete report and she is capable of handling some nursing duties, not flinching at blood or bed pans.
Elizabeth lives somewhat isolated in the American compound. In the city, the orphanage houses wild children who feed off those younger and weaker. The town square fills with women who have walked, now naked, across the desert. They are to be "relocated." No one can be trusted. The officials who say they will help, the quiet readers on a train, the casual guard in the street--danger is everywhere.
From this mind-numbing situation, Elizabeth grows into a new woman. She finds a man she loves. She journeys into primitive conditions to try to help those taken to the desert to die of starvation and the lack of water. She makes a foray into becoming a maternal figure, sheltering one woman and one child from the chaos all around her.
As the narrator says in "The Sandcastle Girls," "How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing? -- You kill them in the middle of nowhere."
The information above may turn some readers away as too much of a downer for a summer read, too horrible. Yet, you should trust Bohjalian. He tells this story in such a way that yes, the violence is there. The gruesome deaths of women, children, babies, and the men fighting in the Dardanelles are all described. But there is hope. There is goodness. There are spirits of strength and family, and above all love. If ever a story proves a theme, so "The Sandcastle Girls" tells us that loves does prevail. The first-person narrator, Laura Petrosian, is a modern girl, seeking to understand her heritage. That she can tell her own story of awakening as she interweaves the history of the Armenian genocide is an absolutely amazing feat of storytelling.
Hats off to Bohjalian for his courage and his adeptness with a large cast of characters and a complicated plot. Sandcastle in the title may lead to some sales as a beach read, but this is not a book to lie in the sun and laze away an afternoon. It is a book that will inflame you to get involved in bringing peace and justice to all people of the world. If I were still teaching, "The Sandcastle Girls" would be my AP summer reading requirement. Bring history into the light. Do not let history repeat itself. Never again.