Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The More Things Change....

...sadly, the more they remain the same. Finishing up Sunday's paper I came upon an article accompanied by a photograph taken last week in Aleppo. Syrian people, Assad's victims, lined up as far as the eye can see, waiting in line for food. Many of these refugees will die of starvation. When I think of what I throw away I'm ashamed.

Ironically I just finished Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls, which I mentioned in my last post. If you aren't familiar with this novel, it is the personal story of Bohjalian's family history as it was lived out during the genocide he thinks no one has ever heard of. In fact, I had. When we were little, my siblings and I were often exhorted to "think of the starving Armenians," when we refused to eat everything on our plates. Read, vegetables.

Much of the action in the Bohjalian book takes place in the same city of Aleppo back in 1915, almost 100 years ago. An American woman, Elizabeth Endicott, and her father, are staying at the American embassy in Aleppo while arranging to have food shipped in for the starving Armenian refugees who flood into the town every day. Many of the women have been raped, beaten, widowed, and had their children pulled from their arms and murdered. The carnage is horrific.

Elizabeth is quite a marvelous character. Spunky, independent, a graduate of Mt. Holyoke at a time when an educated woman was looked at with grave suspicion, she doesn't shy away from the tragedy she encounters, but manages to jump right in to help where needed, oblivious to the differences between her blonde, alabaster self and the darker Armenians. Somehow we aren't in the least surprised when she falls in love with Armen, the widowed engineer she meets at the embassy.

Armen believes that his wife and daughter were killed during the purge and joins the British army as a means of revenge. Though not averse to killing, he is not cut out for war. Through his letters to Elizabeth, readers learn of the senseless cruelty that man inflicts upon man. And through Elizabeth's letters to him, we see her growth as a woman, her work in the nursing facility and with the orphans, as she advocates for their welfare.

The story of Elizabeth and Armen is being told in retrospect by a woman of Armenian descent in contemporary time. Laura Petrosian, we expect, and later find out for sure, is Bohjalian's alter-ego. She/he is a novelist with a renewed interest in her genealogy sparked by a chance siting of an old newspaper photograph featuring her grandmother. And so, the search for the past begins, naturally uncovering secrets thought long since kept.

And it's those secrets that kicks the narrative bar up quite a bit in this book, making it not just another historical novel but one well worth a serious discussion. Fateful decisions, made with thought, have long ranging effects and as I walked and listened I really questioned what I would have done in the same circumstances. An insightful interview with the author at the end of the reading adds depth to the story.

Apologies again for being away from the blog. I've been obsessing over my review of White Dog Fell From the Sky. The book was so heartbreaking. When this is the case, I often find myself at a loss for the proper words to express the depth of the feelings that a novelist takes me to. (uh oh, did I just end that sentence with a preposition?)
This may also be the case when I finish the amazing first novel by Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan, about the Cambodian genocide. I may have to use that word I avoid, but which says it all, "luminous."

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