The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
|The Sandcastle Girls is a sweeping historical love story steeped in Chris Bohjalian’s Armenian heritage.
When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The year is 1915 and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo and travels south into Egypt to join the British army, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.
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Fast forward to the present day, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a 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.
Book Club Ideas
In The Sandcastle Girls, two of the many scenes that stand out for me were when Laura found her father’s tin soldier collection from the 1930’s in the attic and brought them down to show her brother (pg. 156-157) and when Elizabeth gave the young Armenian orphan, Hatoun, a doll named Annika (pg. 95).
As Laura and her brother played with the soldiers, Armen notices and recalls an Australian soldier named Taylor he has never forgotten. (pg. 156-157)
Hatoun quickly dispatches of Annika’s cloth body after receiving the doll from Elizabeth and carries only the doll’s head around with her. Annika becomes a touchstone for Hatoun during her terrifying childhood, and she renames the head. (pg. 211)
There is so much in this city that terrifies her, but there is much that is interesting, too. And it seems that as long as she has Nevart at night and Shoushan by day, she will never wind up like her family or that blond girl in that strange children’s book. Alice.
She reaches into her smock and pulls from it Annika’s head. She kisses the doll’s forehead and in her mind renames the skull Alice.
I found WWI Army Soldiers at Amazon.com and I separated a doll’s head from its body for my decorations. (NOTE: I quickly reunited head and body after I taking this photo before my treachery was discovered!)
Laura’s grandfather would play Armenian folk songs on his ood or “strum it like a madman while her aunt belly danced.” (pg. 4 and pg. 167) The ood (oud) is an ancient stringed Middle Eastern instrument which possibly originated in Persia thousands of years ago. Alan Shavarsh Bardezbanian’s Oud Masterpieces would be perfect for The Sandcastle Girls book club party.
Book Club Menu
The Sandcastle Girls has some great descriptions of food. Laura describes the Armenian culture flourishing in Watertown, Massachusetts and, notably, the Armenian bakeries with Armenian desserts “worth every single calorie.” (pg. 49) My sister Lisa just so happened to be in Boston while I was working on this post, so she stopped by Watertown and visited Sevan Bakery. Lisa agreed with the desserts being worth the calories. Below is a photo she took of a dessert tray. I knew I had to give the tahini bread (pictured at right) and the mamouls (pictured at left) a try. If you happen to live in the Boston area you can get authentic Armenian desserts to serve at your book club party or give my recipes a try below. These desserts are very, very good.
Laura, a self-acknowledged “bad cook” whose kitchen is “a very scary place” credits her DNA with her ability to work with phyllo dough and create “aesthetically perfect” boregs — “each an obtuse isosceles with crisp edges and sharp points.” (pg. 114-115)
Although, my boregs are far from “aesthetically perfect,” they are delicious. Yes, phyllo dough is a little tricky to work with, but its well worth the effort.
Laura, recalling the ways her grandparents’ house was different (pg. 5),
There was always the enveloping aroma of cooked lamb and mint, because my grandfather insisted on lamb chops even for breakfast… My sense early on was that anything with lamb was a “king meal.”
I do agree. My favorite cut of lamb is the loin chop and it’s hard to beat, especially when grilled. A “king meal”:
You might want to include pomegranate wine or pomegranate molasses on your book club menu. Armen reminiscences about pomegranate wine and fresh pomegranates as he and Elizabeth walk the streets of Aleppo. At the market, a vendor promises Armen to have pomegranate molasses the following day. (pg. 41-42) Pomegranate molasses is used in dressings, as a marinade, a dipping sauce, or to give flavor to any number of Middle Eastern dishes. Pomegranate molasses is very tart tasting.
Book Club Resources
Ratings at the time this post was published
|Goodreads: 3.8 stars (24,808 ratings)|
|Amazon: 4.2 stars (894 ratings)|
|LibraryThing: 3.93 stars (331 ratings)|
|My Rating: 4.5 The Sandcastle Girls is set during the horrific Armenian Genocide of 1915. This novel is compelling and painful, but it is also a story of enduring love. Author Bohjalian is of Armenian descent and this novel is a tribute to his heritage. He has called it “the most important book” he will ever write.|
Spoiler Alert: Discussion guide may contain spoilers to the book.
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? Read more . . .
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?
Purchase The Sandcastle Girls at your favorite bookseller
|Chris Bohjalian has authored fifteen books. Chris won the New England Book Award in 2002. The Sandcastle Girls is a New York Times bestseller, a Publishers’ Weekly bestseller, an IndieBound bestseller, and an Oprah.com Book of the Week. His novel, Midwives, was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah’s Book Club, a Publishers Weekly “Best Book,” and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. Three of his novels, “Secrets of Eden,” “Midwives,” and “Past the Bleachers” have been adapted to movies. Chris graduated from Amherst College, and lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter. (Adapted from the Chris Bohjalian website)|
Other Works by Author and Recommended Reading
Personal Insights, Favorite Quotes, etc…
Karine surmises on the origin behind the clinking of goblets together after toasting (pg. 45):
A glass of wine already appealed to four senses: taste, sight, touch, and smell. The tinkling of the glasses appealed to the fifth — and final — sense: sound.
I mentioned above that Lisa visited Boston while I was working on this post in Texas. In addition to stopping by Sevan Bakery in Watertown for some wonderful Armenian baked goods, she also visited the Armenian Monument with her family. Here a couple pictures of of the monument, including Lisa’s boys in the grassy maze.
Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for The Sandcastle Girls? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.
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