Reviews for Sandcastle Girls

Booklist Reviews 2012 June #1
Between April 1915 and April 1916, one and one-half million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Bohjalian uses this as the backdrop for his new novel. Elizabeth Endicott accompanies her father to Aleppo, Syria, to bring aid to the Armenian deportees. While there, Elizabeth meets Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer working for the Germans and searching for his wife and child, though certain they are already dead. In spite of the loss and horror around them, they fall desperately in love. The story is told through the eyes of Laura Petrosian, Elizabeth and Armen's great-granddaughter. After seeing an exhibit of photographs of the Armenian victims, she discovers letters and photos and begins to piece her great-grandparents' story together. Soon "the slaughter you know next to nothing about" takes over her life, and she makes profound discoveries about her ancestors and herself. This is a powerful and moving story based on real events seldom discussed. It will leave you reeling. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2012 July
The Proustian madeleines that inspired a novel

When I was a boy and trying desperately to give a wide berth to the latest culinary travesty my Swedish mother had scooped onto my dinner plate—my mother was a well-intentioned cook, but far too interested in conversation to squirrel herself away in the kitchen and become a good one—she occasionally said, “Eat. You of all people should think of the starving Armenians.”

At least once I recall my Armenian father sitting back in his chair after my mother had said that and asking rhetorically, “Why is it that no one ever says, ‘Eat. Think of the starving Bangladeshis?’ Or the starving Cambodians? Honestly, I don’t know of any starving Armenians.”

He was the son of Armenian immigrants and he grew up in the impressive brick monolith his father had built in a suburb of New York City. Even as a child, when I thought of my grandparents’ house, instantly I would think of food: The platters of warm cheese boregs, the filo dough oozing butter. The rice pilaf rich with the aroma of chicken broth. The grape leaves stuffed with vegetables. And, of course, the lamb, marinated and tender. I have been a vegetarian for well over a quarter-century, but I know I would be in danger of backsliding if I were transported back to my Armenian grandmother’s kitchen. I had a sense that the phrase had something to do with genocide, but my family never discussed the systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

The expression, I’d learn much later, was most likely coined by Clara Barton. Although the genocide had faded into history for most of the world by the early 1970s, the massacres (and, yes, the starving Armenian orphans) had once been common knowledge among Americans and Europeans. During the genocide, the New York Times published 145 stories about the atrocities. Among the most poignant images for Westerners were the photographs and the stories of the children. The orphans. In 1915, first the men and then the women were killed; as a result, thousands and thousands of orphans were scattered across what is now Syria and Lebanon and Egypt.

"Even as a child, when I thought of my grandparents' house, instantly I would think of food."

Consequently, when I decided that it was time to write a novel about the genocide—what my novel’s narrator calls glibly, “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About”—I found myself focused on children and food. Because of the Proustian madeleines from my own childhood, this seemed a viable entry into a story that might otherwise be one mind-numbing horror after another. The novel moves back and forth in time between an Armenian-American novelist at midlife—a female version of me—and a sweeping love story set against the cataclysm of 1915 in the eastern edges of the Ottoman Empire. It is, in part, the tale of Elizabeth Endicott, a 1922 graduate of Mount Holyoke College who travels to the Syrian desert as part of an American relief mission, and her love affair with Armen Petrosian, an Armenian engineer who has already lost his young wife and infant daughter.

There is also a lot of my childhood in the book—and a lot of my grandparents’ house. And, yes, there are orphans in the scenes set in 1915, including one of my favorite characters ever: a quiet, watchful, intense little girl named Hatoun.

Was there a real Hatoun? There were tens of thousands of real Hatouns. (The Near East Relief organization cared for more than 100,000 children between 1915 and 1930.) When I visited Lebanon and Armenia earlier this year, trying to ground myself emotionally as the publication of The Sandcastle Girls neared, among the places I went was an orphanage in the Lebanese city of Byblos. The town sits on a hillside above the Mediterranean and is known best for its remarkable Phoenician ruins, including a citadel and an amphitheater at the edge of the cliff. Also there, however, is the Bird’s Nest, the orphanage founded after WWI by Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen. Jacobsen saved no fewer than 3,600 children herself when she converted a villa into an emergency shelter.

And how did the orphanage get its name? One afternoon when she was handing out candy to the children, they surrounded her, calling out “Mama, Mama!” Jacobsen looked at the hungry throng and imagined the orphans were like baby birds and she was their mother.

When a nun at the orphanage told me this story, I thought of Hatoun and I felt a tremor of sadness ripple across my skin. But I thought also of the structure of my novel and experienced a small swell of relief. There it was, once again: Children and food.

Chris Bohjalian is the author of 14 novels, including the bestsellers Midwives, The Night Strangers and Skeletons at the Feast. The Sandcastle Girls was inspired by his own heritage—and reader requests for his take on the Armenians’ tragic history. You can visit him at, or look for him on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 May #2
The granddaughter of an Armenian and a Bostonian investigates the Armenian genocide, discovering that her grandmother took a guilty secret to her grave. Laura, the narrator of Bohjalian's latest, is doing genealogical research, attempting to learn more about a fact that has always intrigued her: Her Boston Brahmin grandmother, Elizabeth, and her grandfather, Armen, were brought together by the Armenian genocide. Flash back to 1915. Elizabeth has journeyed to the Syrian city of Aleppo, along with her father, on a mission sponsored by an American relief group, the Friends of Armenia. They have come in an attempt to deliver food and supplies to the survivors of the Armenian massacre. The Turks are using Aleppo as a depot for the straggling remnants of thousands of Armenian women, who have been force-marched through the desert after their men were slaughtered. Elizabeth finds the starved women, naked and emaciated, huddled in a public square, awaiting transports to Der-el-Zor, the desert "relocation camp" where, in reality, their final extermination will take place. Elizabeth takes in two of these refugees, Nevart and an orphan Nevart adopted on the trail, Hatoun, who has been virtually mute since she witnessed the beheading (for sport) of her mother and sisters by Turkish guards. By chance, Elizabeth encounters Armen, an Armenian engineer who has come to Aleppo to search for his wife, Karine. Armen has eluded capture since murdering his former friend, a Turkish official who had reneged on his promise to protect Armen's family. Despairing of Karine's survival--and falling in love with Elizabeth--Armen joins the British Army to fight the Turks. Among archival photos viewed by Laura decades later is one of Karine, who did reach the square mere days after Armen left Aleppo. How narrowly did Karine miss reuniting with Armen, Laura wonders, acknowledging that, but for tragic vagaries of fate, the family that produced her might never have come to be. A gruesome, unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 June #1

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 (The Night Strangers) 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

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Library Journal Reviews Newsletter
Laura never gave much thought to her ancestry until she discovers that her grandparents lived through the Armenian genocide of 1915. Drawing on his own heritage, Bohjalian has written a moving and compelling novel about love and loss and a generations-old secret. (LJ 6/1/12) (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 May #4

Bohjalian's powerful newest (after The Night Strangers) depicts the Armenian genocide and one contemporary novelist's quest to uncover her heritage. In 1915, Bostonian Elizabeth Endicott arrives at a compound in Aleppo, Syria, to provide humanitarian aid to Armenian refugees. A fresh-faced nurse just out of college, Elizabeth has learned only rudimentary Armenian, but soon befriends Armen Petrosian, an engineer who lost his wife and daughter during the chaos of the deportations and mass murders. Though Armen departs for Egypt to fight with the British Army in WWI, their relationship blossoms into an epistolary romance. The atrocities of the genocide and the First World War continue, and Bohjalian spares no detail in his gritty descriptions. Nearly a century later, Laura Petrosian is living in the suburbs of New York City when a friend alerts her to a possible photo of her grandmother being used to advertise an exhibit about "the Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About." As she explores her past, Laura discovers that what she once considered to be her grandparents' eccentricities--their living room was dubbed the "Ottoman Annex"--speak to a rich and tragic history. Though the action occasionally feels far-off, Bohjalian's storytelling makes this a beautiful, frightening, and unforgettable read. Agent: Jane Gelfman, Gelfman Schneider. (July)

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