Sandcastle Girls (Bohjalian)

The Sandcastle Girls
Chris Bohjalian, 2012
Knopf Doubleday
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385534796


Summary
Over the years, bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys, ranging from the Vermont farmhouse in Midwives, where a homebirth goes tragically wrong on an icy winter’s night, to the precarious world of Poland and Germany at the close of World War II in Skeletons at the Feast. In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, Bohjalian takes us to a time and place—Syria, 1915—that left haunting legacies for his Armenian heritage, making this his most personal novel to date.
 
A sweeping historical love story, The Sandcastle Girls introduces us to Elizabeth Endicott, an adventure-seeking graduate of Mount Holyoke College who travels to Syria just as the Great War has begun to spread across Europe. With only a crash course in nursing, Elizabeth has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the genocide. She soon befriends a striking Armenian engineer. He is young, but he has already lost his wife and infant daughter to Turkish brutality. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British army in Egypt, he and Elizabeth begin a daring correspondence, bridging their very different worlds with words of love and hope.
 
Interwoven with their tale is the story of Laura Petrosian, a contemporary novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents' ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed “The Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought.  But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura's grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family's history that reveals love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
 
An epic story of love and war, The Sandcastle Girls will captivate your reading group. We hope this guide will enrich your discussion. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1960
Where—White Plains, New York, USA
Education—Amherst College
Awards—Anahid Literary Award, 2000; New England Book
   Award, 2002
Currently—lives in Lincoln, Vermont


Christopher Aram Bohjalian, who goes by the pen name Chris Bohjalian, is an American novelist. Bohjalian is the author of 15 novels, including New York Times bestsellers Midwives, Secrets of Eden, The Law of Similars, Before You Know Kindness, The Double Bind, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Night Strangers.

Bohjalian is the son of Aram Bohjalian, who was a senior vice president of the New York advertising agency Romann & Tannenholz. Chris Bohjalian graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College, where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. In the mid-1980s, he worked as an account representative for J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York.

He and his wife lived in a co-op in Brooklyn until March 1986, when the two were riding in a taxicab in which the driver refused to let them out of the car for 45 minutes, ignoring all traffic lights and stop signs. Around midnight, the driver dropped them off at a near-deserted street in front of a crack house, where the police were conducting a raid and Bohjalian and his wife were forced to drop to the ground for their protection. The incident prompted the couple to move from Brooklyn; Bohjalian said, "After it was all over, we just thought, "Why do we live here?" A few days later, the couple read an ad in The New York Times referencing the "People's Republic of Vermont," and in 1987 the couple moveed to Lincoln, Vermont.

Early career
After buying their house, Bohjalian began writing weekly columns for local newspaper and magazine about living in the small town, which had a population of about 975 residents. The Concord Monitor said of Bohjalian during this period, "his immersion in community life and family, Vermont-style, has allowed him to develop into a novelist with an ear and empathy for the common man." Bohjalian continued the column for about 12 years, writing about such topics as his own daily life, fatherhood and the transformation of America. The column has run in the Burlington Free Press since 1992. Bohjalian has also written for such magazines as Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

Bohjalian's first novel, A Killing in the Real World, was released in 1988. Almost two decades after it was released, Bohjalian said of the book, "It was a train wreck. I hadn't figured things out yet." His third novel, Past the Bleachers, was released in 1992 and adapted as a Hallmark Channel television movie in 1995.

In 1998, Bohjalian wrote his fifth book, Midwives, a novel focusing on rural Vermont midwife Sibyl Danforth, who becomes embroiled in a legal battle after one of her patients died following an emergency Caesarean section. The novel was critically acclaimed and was selected by Oprah Winfrey as the October 1998 selection of her Oprah's Book Club, which helped push the book to great financial success. It became a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Victoria Blewer has often described her husband as having "a crush" on the Sybil Danforth character. In 2001, the novel was adapted into a Lifetime Movie Network television film starring Sissy Spacek in the lead role. Spacek said the Danforth character appealed to her because "the heart of the story is my character's inner struggle with self-doubt, the solo road you travel when you have a secret."

Later career
Bohjalian followed Midwives with the 1999 novel The Law of Similars, about a widower attorney suffering from nameless anxieties who starts dating a woman who practices alternative medicine. The novel was inspired by Bohjalian's real-life visit to a homeopath in an attempt to cure frequent colds he was catching from his daughter's day care center. Bohjalian said of the visit, "I don't think I imagined there was a novel in homeopathy, however, until I met the homeopath and she explained to me the protocols of healing. There was a poetry to the language that a patient doesn't hear when visiting a conventional doctor." The protagonist, a father, is based in part on Bohjalian himself, and his four-year-old daughter is based largely on Bohjalian's daughter, who was three when he was writing the book., Liz Rosenberg of The New York Times said the novel shared many similarities with Midwives but that it paled in comparison; Rosenberg said, "Unlike its predecessor, it fails to take advantage of Bohjalian's great gift for creating thoughtful fiction featuring characters in whom the reader sustains a lively interest." Megan Harlan of The Boston Phoenix described it as "formulaic fiction" and said Bohjalian focused too much on creating a complex plot and not enough of complex characterizations. The Law of Similars, like Midwives, made the New York Times bestsellers list.

He won the New England Book Award in 2002, and in 2007 released "The Double Bind," a novel based on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

In 2008, Bohjalian released Skeletons at the Feast, a love story set in the last six months of World War II in Poland and Germany. The novel was inspired by an unpublished diary written by German citizen Eva Henatsch from 1920 to 1945. The diary was given to Bohjalian in 1998 by Henatsch's grandson Gerd Krahn, a friend of Bohjalian, who had a daughter in the same kindergarten class as Bohjalian's daughter. Bohjalian was particularly fascinated by Henatsch's account of her family's trek west ahead of the Soviet Army, but he was not inspired to write a novel from it until 2006, when he read Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, Max Hastings' history of the final years of World War II. Bohjalian was struck not only by how often Henatsch's story mirrored real-life experiences, but also the common "moments of idiosyncratic human connection" found in both. Skeletons of the Feast was considered a departure for Bohjalian because it was not only set outside of Vermont, but set in a particular historical moment.

His 2010 novel, Secrets of Eden, was also a critical success, receiving starred reviews from three of the four trade journals (Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly), as well as many newspapers and magazines. It debuted at # 6 on The New York Times bestseller list.

His next novel, The Night Strangers, published in 2011, represents yet another departure for Bohjalian. The is both a gothic ghost story and a taut psychological thriller.

He has written a weekly column for Gannett's Burlington Free Press since February 1992 called "Idyll Banter." His 1,000th column appeared in May 2011.

Personal comments
In a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview, Bohjalian offered up these personal comments:

I was the heaviest child, by far, in my second-grade class. My mother had to buy my pants for me at a store called the "Husky Boys Shop," and still she had to hem the cuffs up around my knees. I hope this experience, traumatizing as it was, made me at least marginally more sensitive to people around me.

I have a friend with Down syndrome, a teenage boy who is capable of remembering the librettos from entire musicals the first or second time he hears them. The two of us belt them out together whenever we're driving anywhere in a car.I am a pretty avid bicyclist. The other day I was biking alone on a thin path in the woods near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and suddenly before me I saw three bears. At first I saw only two, and initially I thought they were cats. Then I thought they were dogs. Finally, just as I was approaching them and they started to scurry off the path and into the thick brush, I understood they were bears. Bear cubs, to be precise. Which is exactly when their mother, no more than five or six feet to my left, reared up on her hind legs, her very furry paws and very sharp claws raised above her head in a gesture that an optimist might consider a wave and guy on a bike might consider something a tad more threatening. Because she was standing on a slight incline, I was eye level with her stomach—an eventual destination that seemed frighteningly plausible. I have never biked so fast in my life in the woods. I may never have biked so fast in my life on a paved road.

I do have hobbies—I garden and bike, for example—but there's nothing in the world that gives me even a fraction of the pleasure that I derive from hanging around with my wife and daughter.

He lives with his wife and daughter in Lincoln, Vermont, where he is active in the local church and the Vermont theater community—always off-stage, never on.

Writing style
Bohjalian novels often focus on a specific issue, such as homelessness, animal rights and environmentalism, and tend to be character-driven, revolving around complex and flawed protagonists and secondary characters. Bohjalian uses characteristics from his real life in his writings; in particular, many of his novels take place in fictional Vermont towns, and the names of real New Hampshire towns are often used throughout his stories. Bohjalian said, "Writers can talk with agonizing hubris about finding their voices, but for me, it was in Vermont that I discovered issues, things that matter to me." His novels also tend to center around ordinary people facing extraordinarily difficult situations resulting from unforeseen circumstances, often triggered by other parties. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
(Starred review.) Bohjalian's powerful novel...depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist's quest to uncover her heritage.... His storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read.
Publishers Weekly


Repeatedly (and embarrassingly accurately) referred to here as "The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About," the Armenian genocide of 1915-16 takes center stage in Bohjalian's intergenerational novel. Elizabeth Endicott, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate, accompanies her Bostonian banker father on his philanthropic mission to Aleppo, Syria, to aid Armenian refugees fleeing atrocities committed by the Ottoman government. Her friendship with Armenian engineer Armen, who has lost his wife and baby daughter, flourishes when they are apart and can only communicate in letters. Years later, Laura Petrosian, seeking out a photograph of a woman rumored to be her Armenian grandmother, uncovers these letters among a wealth of documents—a treasure trove for an Armenian American novelist searching for pieces of her family history. Verdict: Bohjalian powerfully narrates an intricately nuanced romance with a complicated historical event at the forefront. With the centennial of the Armenian genocide fast approaching, this is not to be missed. Simply astounding. —Julie Kane, Sweet Briar Coll. Lib., VA
Library Journal


(Starred review.) A powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling. —Elizabeth Dickie
Booklist


(Starred review.) An unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Though The Sandcastle Girls is a novel, author Chris Bohjalian (and fictional narrator Laura Petrosian) based their storytelling on meticulous research. What can a novel reveal about history that a memoir or history book cannot? Before reading The Sandcastle Girls, what did you know about the Armenian genocide? How does this history broaden your understanding of current events in the regions surrounding Armenia?

2. What lies at the heart of Armen and Elizabeth’s attraction to each other, despite their seemingly different backgrounds? What gives their love the strength to transcend distance and danger?

3. The novel includes characters such as Dr. Akcam, Helmut, and Orhan, who take great risks opposing the atrocities committed by their superiors; Bohjalian does not cast the “enemy” as uniformly evil. What do these characters tell us about the process of resistance? What separates them from the others, who become capable of horrific, dehumanizing acts?

4. Discuss the bond between Nevart and Hatoun. What do they demonstrate about the traits, and the trauma, of a survivor? How do they redefine motherhood and childhood?

5. Bohjalian is known for creating inventive, authentic narrators for his novels, ranging from a midwife to a foster child. Why was it important for The Sandcastle Girls to be told primarily from the point of view of a woman? How was your reading affected by the knowledge that the author is a man?

6. In chapter 9, Elizabeth courageously quotes the Qur’an to appeal to the conscience of the Turkish lieutenant. What diplomacy lessons are captured in that moment? For the novel’s characters—from aid workers to Armenians who tried to convert—what is the role of religion?

7. When Laura describes the music of her 1960s youth, her steamy relationship with Berk, her belly-dancing aunt, and other cultural memories, what is she saying about the American experience of immigration and assimilation? Culturally, what did her grandfather sacrifice in order to gain security and prosperity in America?

8. Discuss the various aid workers depicted in the novel. What motivated them to assist in this particular cause? Do Alicia, Sister Irmingard, and Elizabeth achieve similar outcomes despite their different approaches? What overseas populations would you be willing to support so courageously?

9. Does Ryan Martin use his power effectively? How does Elizabeth gain power in a time period and culture that was marked by the oppression of women?

10. The vivid scenes of Gallipoli bring to life the global nature of war over the past century. As Armen fights alongside Australians, what do we learn about the power and the vulnerabilities of multinational forces? What did it mean for his fellow soldiers to fight for a cause so far removed from their own homelands, and for his own countrymen to rely on the mercy of outsiders?

11. At the end of chapter 19, does Elizabeth make the right decision? How would you have reacted in the wake of a similar tragedy?

12. How do Laura’s discoveries enrich her sense of self? Discuss your own heritage and its impact on your identity. How much do you know about your parents’ and grandparents’ upbringing? What immigration stories are part of your own family’s collective memory?

13. As she tries to explain why so few people are aware of the Armenian genocide, Laura cites the fact that the victims perished in a remote desert. The novel also describes the problem of trying to document the atrocities using the cumbersome photography equipment of the day. Will the Information Age spell the end of such cover-ups? For future generations, will genocide be unimaginable?

14. Which aspects of The Sandcastle Girls remind you of previous Bohjalian novels you have enjoyed?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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