Between 1915 and 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Turkish government. Some were marched through the desert, where they died of dehydration or starvation. Others were massacred outright. Still others were raped and otherwise tortured. This is known in most parts of the world (but not Turkey) as the Armenian genocide. Never heard of it? Me neither, until I read The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (Vintage, 15.95 USD).

I remember learning about the Ottoman Empire and the Young Turks in history classes, but this massacre, if it was mentioned at all, was glossed over. Everyone knows about the Holocaust – but Germany has recognized that atrocity, learned from its mistakes, and taken steps to ensure that every schoolchild learns about the Holocaust – many even visit concentration camps on school field trips. Turkey, on the other hand, refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide, even 100 years after it started, and many of its current allies are hesitant to recognize it (the United States, for example, did not officially recognize the genocide until March 2010).

Forgotten history like this is exactly why I have become interested in historical fiction in the past several years (many thanks to the ladies in the book club I led at my former job for requesting that we read more of it). The story is a spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine (or painful history) go down.

Elizabeth Endicott, a recent college graduate, arrives in Aleppo with her father, a wealthy Bostonian banker, to provide aide for the refugees from the genocide. While there, she encounters an Armenian engineer, Armen, who is accompanied by two German soldiers who are also engineers. Germany and Turkey are allies, but the soldiers do not agree with what is happening to the Armenians and are finding their own ways to show the massacre to the rest of the world. Armen’s wife and child were marched into the desert to be “relocated,” and he has come to Aleppo to try and find out what happened to them. They are almost certainly dead, but since nearly-dead refugees stumble out of the desert regularly, Aleppo is a good place to start looking for people who might know their fates.

Elizabeth is drawn to Armen, and Armen is drawn to Elizabeth, but she has a well-meaning father who wants to see her married to an appropriately well-off man from a good family in Boston, while he has a sad history and a dead wife whose loss he has only just begun to heal from. When he finds no answers regarding his wife and daughter, Armen tells Elizabeth he must move on and try to make it to Egypt and join the British Army in fighting the Turks – perhaps he can find some peace in fighting those who have massacred everything he loved.

After Armen leaves Aleppo, Elizabeth builds a  friendship with Nevart, an Armenian refugee woman who speaks English and arrived in the square in Aleppo starving and near death, and Hatoun, a child whose mother and sister were raped and killed by Turkish soldiers in the desert and who has been clinging to Nevart like a surrogate mother. Elizabeth does what she can to ensure that Nevart and Hatoun remain safe and together; if she cannot make a dent in the large-scale suffering of an entire people, perhaps she can save these two. Armen and Elizabeth write to each other daily, but mail is far from reliable in Syria during the war.

The historical part of this story is framed by the first-person narration of a present-day descendant of Elizabeth and Armen, Laura Petrosian, a writer who is researching her grandparents’ history for a book. In the course of her research, she comes across her grandmother Elizabeth Endicott’s letters and journal and pieces together the series of events that led to Elizabeth and Armen reuniting. Without this frame, the story of Elizabeth and Armen could easily stand alone. With it, however, the reader achieves a greater understanding of how and why the horrific atrocities committed by the Turks were all but swept under the rug of history. The first-person narration frame provides historical context as well as clues to how Armen and Elizabeth lived their lives after leaving Aleppo. Laura herself, the direct descendant of an Armenian man and an American aid worker, had little knowledge of what had happened to her ancestors until she travelled to the archives where her grandmother had donated her writings from her time in Aleppo. The events surrounding her grandparents’ courtship were so horrific that Elizabeth and Armen kept many of them even from each other and took these secrets to their graves. Laura’s parents – their children – knew very little of what had transpired in Syria. However, Elizabeth Endicott had the forethought to consider future generations. While she herself was largely unwilling to talk about what she had seen, she ensured that her knowledge would be passed on to future generations.

The writing in the historical parts of the book is functional but not memorable – the story takes center stage, not the way it is presented. The frame portions are what truly humanize Elizabeth and Armen; Laura remembers them as her grandparents, and they become real people instead of figures in a history book. Laura’s grandfather rarely spoke of his military experience, but he brought it up briefly for Laura’s brother when she found tin soldiers in the attic. Her grandmother cut Silas Endicott out of her life when he criticized the clothing that Elizabeth wore, blaming Armen for not being able to afford a “decent skirt” for his wife.

Laura’s narration also provides commentary for the way the genocide is remembered (or forgotten). She refers to it as The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About throughout the book, and while admitting that her husband is no more in touch with his Italian ancestry than she is with her Armenian ancestry (and their kids are in touch with neither), she also argues that

[H]istory does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Serbs and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle? You get the point. Besides, my grandparents’ story deserves to be told, regardless of their nationality. (178)

Indeed, it does. For their part, Elizabeth and Armen were too busy living the genocide to provide commentary, so Laura does it for them. So, too, does Bohjalian for those of us who knew nothing of it.