Boy was I wrong about this one.

Those who read my reviews know that I have a less than systematic method for choosing my reading materials. Today’s book is no exception: I chose to listen to the audio version of “The Sandcastle Girls” by Chris Bohjalian, thinking I was getting a cozy read about some girls on a resort shore building sand castles.

I could not have been more wrong! Instead of finding myself on some idyllic seashore somewhere, I found myself in the vortex of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

This 2012 book opened my eyes to a portion of world history previously completely and entirely unknown to me.

I found it timely to be reading this book in 2015 because this year marks the centennial of the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

I have always enjoyed historical fiction because it piques my interest in a subject, it provides me a framework for understanding a period of history and it causes me to search out what truly happened.

“The Sandcastle Girls” is written in multiple times on purpose by the author. The author felt that the horrors of this genocide would be too intense of a storyline, so he has interwoven a current story into his account.

Laura Petrosian is a novelist living in suburban New York. Although Laura recognizes her Armenian heritage, she has given it little thought. Then one day, a friend claims to have seen Laura’s grandmother in an old newspaper photo in an exhibit at a Boston museum. At least the woman in the photo has Laura’s same last name.

Thus begins Laura’s journey to find her family history.

Laura knows little about her grandparents other than they lived in the family home affectionately called “Ottoman annex.” She also knows that her grandparents had a dark side to them, with moods that could frequently become dark. Her parents know equally little about their parents in their lives as young adults.

Laura’s quest to discover secrets uncovers love, finds loss and discovers heart-rending secrets that have been buried for generations.

Alternating with Laura’s quest is the story of Elizabeth Endicott. In 1915, freshly graduated from Mount Holyoke and having received minimal nursing training, Elizabeth leaves with her father for Aleppo, Syria, to offer humanitarian aid.

World War I is spreading across Europe, and as a part of the Friends of Armenia, she and her father go to deliver food and medical assistance to refugees from the Armenian genocide.

While offering this aid, she sees the horrors of the genocide. She sees women and children being marched across blistering deserts, many dying and many others being raped and tortured, arriving as living skeletons when they get to Aleppo.

There, she becomes friends with Armen, a young Armenian engineer, who is searching for the answer to what has become of his wife and child.

Escaping Aleppo to join with the British in their fight against the Ottoman Empire, Armen begins a correspondence with Elizabeth; the two of them falling in love with each other.

Questions I will not answer in this review: What secrets does Laura find out about her grandparents? What is it that her grandfather never ever shared even with his wife? Or that her grandmother never shared with her husband? Do Armen and Elizabeth ever see each other again?

You will have to read the book to find out.

As with much historical fiction, this book set me searching for more facts. For instance, did you know in 2007 Turkey was ready to cut ties with the U.S. over a resolution in Congress to recognize the 1.5 million deaths as a genocide? Somehow I missed out on that one.

Forty-three states have resolutions calling these deaths a genocide, but the United States itself will not recognize it as such.

Also, some historians link the Nazi Holocaust to the Armenian genocide. It is reported that Hitler said prior to his invasion of Poland, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking novel. It is haunting and foreshadows what has happened multiple times throughout the past century and continues in places today: the systematic annihilation of a people group for what they believe or what is their background.

This book is available in print, audio or downloadable audio. Read it if you dare.

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