‘Promise Me This’ uses fiction to teach redemption

Some of my favorite books are Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers; and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. So, it should come as no surprise that I also really like Promise Me This, the newest novel by Cathy Gohlke.

Here’s part of the summary from the back of the book:

“Annie Allen never imagined the day she watched her brother, Owen, sail on the Titanic would be the last time she’d see him. Nor could she guess how the tragedy would forever knit her life to Michael Dunnagan, who survived through Owen’s sacrifice.

As Annie struggles to navigate a challenging life in England, Michael labors in New Jersey to create the gardening business Owen once dreamed of and to heal Annie’s grief through letters…”

Its 402 pages offer plenty of twists and historical turns, like World War I erupting — making it more than the average romance book. And, for those looking for spiritual insight, you’ll find plenty of that, too.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Cathy Gohlke answers a few questions for us.

1. Obviously you did a lot of historical research for the book. How long did that take you and where did it take you?

“Treasure hunt,” covering parts of several years, best describes the research for this book.  It began with a copy of a portion of Titanic’s manifest, showing details of Owen George Allum, a young gardener who’d sailed third class from Southampton, and reminded me of my great-grandfather who’d emigrated from England not long before. Later, in a Titanic exhibit, I saw Owen’s name again and learned that he’d drowned.  Some internet research led me to his family, his intended destination, even the items found in his pockets once his body was recovered. From all of that and details gleaned from nonfiction books and hearing records about Titanic, I wove a fictional short story, “The Legacy of Owen Allen,” which eventually grew into the novel length manuscript, Promise Me This.

To locate some unique research materials and better understand my characters, to flesh out the story and carry it through WWI, I traveled to England—focusing on Lincoln, London, Southampton and Dover, then across the English Channel to Calais.  The next year, needing a better understanding of WWI in Europe, I traveled to France and Germany—focusing on Limoges, Lyon, Rheims, Verdun, Colmar, and the Voseges, as well as Berlin and the surrounding area. Closer to home, I found Leaming’s Run Gardens, just outside Cape May Courthouse, New Jersey—the perfect spot to set Allen’s Run Gardens.

2.  It seems each character has his or her own part in the redemption story. Which one is your favorite? Which one speaks the most to you?

Owen Allen is my favorite.  I love his heart and his ability to see situations and people as they really are, yet still count them precious.  I love his confidence in knowing who he is and whose he is, enabling him to sacrifice freely for others.  That makes him the ideal picture of Christ.

But, “who speaks to me most,” might be different.  I may best relate to Michael—the abused youngster who did not believe he deserved the life and love he was offered.  Determined to make good on his promise to Owen, Michael learned to walk joyfully and gratefully in Owen’s footsteps.  That is my heart—to joyfully, gratefully follow Christ in hope of coming closer to Him, and becoming more like Him.

3.  Did writing the book change you spiritually? If so, how?

Yes.  When I began the book I didn’t imagine I could love my Savior more than I already did.  I was wrong!  Love begets love.  As I wrote, and as Owen’s sacrificial love unfolded, as Michael struggled to accept the gift given at such great price, as Annie learned who she was and what she could sacrifice for others, I was overwhelmed, humbled, thrilled.  It was self-revealing, and our Lord’s love for us took my breath away.

In writing Owen’s passion for gardening, I delighted in the John 15 image of our Lord as Master Gardener— tending, pruning, caring for us so that we’ll bear more fruit.  This process makes us so much a part of Him—the vine—that the two become inseparable.  And then we truly bear the fragrance of Christ.  Writing Promise Me This engraved that image on my heart.


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