The Sandcastle Girls was our book club’s selection last month, but I found it difficult, immediately after reading it, to figure out what to say about it. There is so much I could say about the awful tragedy recounted in the book, both at a personal level for characters in the book and for the millions of people affected by the genocide of the Armenian people.
Then again, what is there I could say that would really do justice to the subject? Chris Bohjalian does it far better, bringing to life an ugly chapter of history that has been largely forgotten by most of the world. The stark reality of human suffering is depicted in more grim detail than I might have liked, but the fact that people do such horrible things to one another is reason to tell them, not to ignore them.
I dislike novels that make up awful things for the sake of entertainment. But this is history, even if told as historical fiction in order to bring the reader fully into the story, seeing it through the eyes of Elizabeth and Armen.
Some of my fellow book club members found it confusing that Bohjalian jumps back and forth between past and present. I would have preferred that the story simply be told as Elizabeth’s and Armen’s story, without present-day Laura’s chapters inserted as she tries to learn more about her grandparents. But I didn’t find it confusing to keep track of. I just found Laura’s story less interesting.
There are also a few other characters, besides Elizabeth and Armen, from whose perspective a portion of the story is told. They are part of Elizabeth and Armen’s story, however, playing key roles in the plot development at certain points, so I was not bothered by those jumps in perspective.
I was fascinated, in fact, to see these different angles on the story. So many different people from different backgrounds converge in Aleppo, and the reader may be surprised by who aligns with whom in certain situations. Anyone interested in cross-cultural communication can find much food for thought in this story.
There are, however, those who dispute the validity of Bohjalian’s portrayal of Turks as the villains and Armenians as innocent victims. Comments on this book review of the novel in the Washington Post include some arguing that the facts have been distorted by the West, and that the Turks were engaged in a civil war with the Armenians, with both sides suffering and both sides guilty of injustice.
Another comment points out that the Armenian Genocide is accepted by almost all historians. Historical validity isn’t determined by majority opinion, of course, but with the West generally open to people pushing contrary opinions, and often subject to a good deal of self-criticism, I generally find their consensus more credible. Of course, one could say I’m culturally biased, and how can I deny that?
When I was growing up, I knew an Armenian family. I remember being puzzled that it was so important to them that the story be told of what had happened in the country of their ancestors, decades before they were born. It had happened, it was bad, but it was over and done such a long time ago. What was so important about bringing a forgotten story to life now?
It’s not, perhaps, the story itself that is so important, but making it possible for such stories to be told. And the refusal to acknowledge what happened in the past says something about one’s priorities today. Just this month, Pope Francis addressed the issue of the Armenian genocide, linking it to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East today.
It’s not clear what exactly could have been done for Armenia one hundred years ago. After all, for much of the last three decades, the U.S. has been intervening in one trouble spot of the world or another. No doubt some good has come of it in some cases, but it’s hard to say overall whether intervention has been helpful. In some cases it certainly seems to have made things worse.
But shedding truth on ugly realities is always one step toward combating them. And if someone has a comparable story written from the perspective of the Turks, I’d be interested in reading that too.