My book club’s July selection was Cathy Gohlke’s excellent novel about the Titanic, Promise Me This, a heartrending and ultimately uplifting story. Cathy graciously answered our many questions which I’m delighted to share with you in two parts.
**Please be aware there are spoilers below so read at own risk!**
Promise Me This
Michael Dunnagan was never supposed to sail on the Titanic, nor would he have survived if not for the courage of Owen Allen. Determined to carry out his promise to care for Owen’s relatives in America and his younger sister, Annie, in England, Michael works hard to strengthen the family’s New Jersey garden and landscaping business.
Annie Allen doesn’t care what Michael promised Owen. She only knows that her brother is gone—like their mother and father—and the grief is enough to swallow her whole. As Annie struggles to navigate life without Owen, Michael reaches out to her through letters. In time, as Annie begins to lay aside her anger that Michael lived when Owen did not, a tentative friendship takes root and blossoms into something neither expected. Just as Michael saves enough money to bring Annie to America, WWI erupts in Europe. When Annie’s letters mysteriously stop, Michael risks everything to fulfill his promise—and find the woman he’s grown to love—before she’s lost forever.
I’ve always been fascinated by the romance of the Edwardian era—Downton Abbey style—and by the ship—her passengers and staff, as well as the family members left behind. I’ve especially wondered about the survivors—how did they go on living, knowing they’d been miraculously, magnanimously saved while hundreds died, screaming, around them. I’ve wondered if they thanked God for their seat in a lifeboat, their gift of life received through grace—no merit of their own—and how they responded to that gift in the years ahead. When I said those words aloud—words like “gift, grace, unmerited” I knew they sounded familiar. The story of the greatest gift, the greatest most unmerited grace, had already been told through Christ. I wanted to explore Titanic’s faint echo of that true story.
Who was your favourite character to write?
Owen is my favorite character. But I also loved writing Michael’s viewpoint and especially Aunt Maggie’s.
The most difficult?
Putting myself in Annie’s head was sometimes a challenge, and sometimes very natural. But, truly, I loved writing all these characters—except Aunt Eleanor, the one character we all love to hate! I heard their voices clearly.
Please share one of your favourite passages from the book
This passage begins on page 375. I can identify with Maggie’s wrestling:
Annie’s letter from France was a double-edged sword in Maggie Allen McKenica’s heart. It brought joy and resolution but confirmed the worst of her fears.
Thank You, Lord in Heaven, that Annie is safe. But why, Sweet Jesus? Why would You give me the joy of his life and let it be snatched away? Why not let me go to my grave barren rather than to have planted such joy in my heart as that lad brought? Was he not the son no other could have been to me? Is she not the daughter I have waited all my life to hold?
While the rest of Swainton and Cape May County celebrated the armistice, and the town and majority of middle-aged mothers rejoiced in the promise of their sons’ homecoming from the Great War, Maggie’s faith wrestled with her God who gave and her God who took away.
She pounded her fists and cried her tears behind the sheds in the gardens. She lay prostrate on Sean’s grave on moonless nights. She slept in Daniel’s arms.
By the end of two weeks she remembered that He was also the God who had sustained her through a young, arranged marriage, a trip on unknown seas to a new world, and a farm with a mortgage all their own. He was the God who had comforted her through years of barrenness and the death of her good husband Sean and then the death of Owen—the miracle lad who never came. He was the God who brought her instead Michael, the blessed son she had never borne. He was the God of her astonishing late-in-life marriage to Daniel, a man as good as any ten.
This God, she decided, who had held her when Michael came to live with them, was the same God who held her when Michael sailed away. He had comforted her when Annie hoped to come and when Annie disappeared and when the war dragged on. She had a long history with this God.
At the end of a very long month Maggie found her knees and vowed, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” She sat back on her heels and whispered, “What is next, Lord? Show me Your path and give me the strength, the grace, to walk in it. But do not leave me, Lord. Stay close, for I must lean hard.
Maggie wrote Annie, repeating her offer of a home, if ever her dear niece wanted or needed it. And gripping her pen, Maggie wished Annie and Phillippe well in their forthcoming marriage, praying that would bring her joy.
Someday, when you are ready, dearest Annie, I hope that you and Phillippe will bring your children to visit Daniel and me. We shall walk together in Owen and Michael’s gardens and the very special one Michael named for you. The pink and white double roses will bloom there again come June, the English boxwood will grow in its own slow way, the ivy will trail and spread, and the blue lobelia will be waiting.
All my love,
How did you cope emotionally when the research became distressing? (I’m assuming it did!!)
Pray, and hop the train to D.C. There’s nothing so freeing as leaving my house behind and riding the train. It’s almost like time travel. From the moment I take my seat and look out the window my mind turns, like a key in a lock, and new vistas open. At the end of the line I traverse the Metro and happily meet my daughter for lunch—time with her is a tonic for me. Over our favorite meal in our favorite restaurant we brainstorm knotty problems or the new ideas running rampant through our heads. By the time I get back on the train I’m ready to write again. Two hours later I step off the train with scribbly pages of new notes, eager to begin again.
Evil Aunt Eleanor was depicted so entirely cruel that in the end you truly believed that she had no heart. Her only twisted happiness was to prevent any of her kin claiming even one loving relationship within their own lives. When Aunt Eleanor delivered her final contract to Annie – if Annie had chosen differently – what would the outcome have been? Did you write some of that story before choosing the other path?
Interesting question! I never wrote another path for Annie and won’t speculate on that. It would feel like “second-guessing” her. Based on her maturity and life experience, Annie did the best she saw to do.
There have been times in my life that people have asked me if I would do something again—make the same choice, if I had it to do over again. And, I think, yes, because that was the only conclusion I could draw at that time. Years later, with more experience, greater understanding and better connections, I might well have made a different choice. That’s how it was for Annie.
Have you ever experienced, or seen a close friend experience, the kind of manipulation demonstrated by Aunt Eleanor?
Yes, I’m sorry to say that I have experienced this and have seen others experience it.
The character of Owen seemed to epitomize the saying “the good die young”! It was very encouraging to read his character and to see unfold the far reaching consequences and blessings of his choices. The memory of him was enough to inspire so many others and also to initiate healing the deep wounds within Michael. Have you been inspired by someone with a similar character and faith in your life?
I’ve known wonderfully strong men and women of faith in my life, and I’m so thankful for the ways in which they’ve demonstrated sacrificial love, and inspired me. But, Owen is a picture of Christ. The story is a picture of Christ’s sacrificial love for the world, and our response to that unmerited gift. Owen was—as a story character—a composite of the real Owen Allum (a third class gardener aboard Titanic) and my great-grandfather (a master gardener who emigrated from England). But the character qualities and faith of Owen were entirely inspired by our Lord—our Master Gardener. John 15 became very precious to me as I wrote for those reasons.
I was disappointed with Connie’s character towards the end of the book, but then realized that it would be a very different story in that time. Connie had lost her parents to grief and loss through the war and once they had gone away to find some health and perspective again, she was all alone. Why did you use Connie as the potential ‘other woman’ instead of say another nurse at one of the field hospitals Michael visited or maybe a younger Anne Vanderbuilt?
You’re right—Connie had lost a great deal, and she was very much alone at the end of the war doing very difficult and strenuous work. Her nerves were strained, she believed Annie was going to marry Phillippe, and Michael was there. He was the one link she had to some semblance of her family’s life and home before the war. Michael needed help and she needed to give and to receive love. Connie, a strong and wonderfully generous and resilient friend to Annie for so long, showed that when we’re weary and battle-scarred it is easy to lose our way, to not think quite clearly, to not act as honorably as we might normally do or hope to do. Sometimes we try to justify that based on those circumstances or experiences. Connie’s condition of faith is not made entirely clear in the book, and without that (acting in her own strength) she may have been relying on her own plumb line—always questionable.
Connie’s forward behavior also required that Michael be in a very vulnerable position—which he was during the Spanish flu epidemic. The thing I should stress is that these characters took on lives of their own. I didn’t feel, while writing, or now in retrospect, that I manipulated them. I simply recorded their story as it unfolded.
While answering this question it occurs to me that Connie was in a position not so different to Aunt Eleanor as a young woman. Connie, like Eleanor, had hopes and dreams. Connie had intended to go to Europe to nurse during the war, but (like Eleanor) stayed home with her parents when there was no one left. Connie nursed in England. Annie (almost a younger sister to Connie), went to France instead (though Annie didn’t want to and Connie didn’t know it), and Annie ended up having not one, but two marriage proposals. And yet, though still alone in the end, Connie let Michael go to America and his life, whatever that might be. She didn’t cruelly manipulate or wheedle or coerce him to stay with her as Eleanor tried to do to Owen and Annie’s father. Faced with similar circumstances, Connie took responsibility for herself and made healthier choices than Eleanor, though she stumbled along the way. Connie seemed very dear and very human to me.
Part 2 to come……
Cathy Gohlke is the two-time Christy Award-winning author of William Henry is a Fine Name and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, which also won the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Book of the Year Award and was listed by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2008.
Cathy has worked as a school librarian, drama director, and director of children’s and education ministries. When not traipsing the hills and dales of historic sites, she, her husband, and their dog, Reilly, make their home on the banks of the Laurel Run in Maryland.