Chris Bohjalian is known for tackling some difficult issues and in The Sandcastle Girls, he pays homage to his Armenian ancestry while bringing to light a little known tragedy that took place during World War I — the massacre of thousands of Armenians.
Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria, with little more than a college degree and a crash-course in nursing. Her mission is to volunteer at the local hospital and report back to the Friends of Armenia in Boston on the state of the Armenian deportees arriving on a daily basis. She befriends one of the women, who has become surrogate mother to a young girl who has lost her family, and is enamored by an Armenian engineer named Armen, who lost his wife and young daughter. When Armen joins the British Army and is sent to Egypt, he and Elizabeth communicate by letter, forming a friendship that turns to a long distance romance.
Elizabeth’s story alternates with her granddaughter Laura’s, who has come across a photograph of her grandfather with a woman, and not the one she knows as her grandmother. Aware of an undercurrent of sadness surrounding her grandparents and their Armenian heritage, she becomes more interested in their past, discovering more than she may have wished to know.
The Sandcastle Girls is obviously a very personal novel to Bohjalian, and the horrors that take place are very real and very difficult, but the romance aspect helps to take away some of the sadness that comes with the atrocities. Elizabeth’s friendship with the refuge and the young girl angers her father and the other missionaries but her desire for independence and to do what’s right win out over their objections.
This is not an easy read, but an important one and I recommend it.