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 Elkton, Maryland.
Twist on a Familiar Tale
We’ve been mesmerized by James Cameron’s Titanic love story of Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater, about to be re-released in 3-D. We grew up with Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember.” We’ve been inspired by stories of Mrs. Strauss, who chose to die with her husband, and uncomfortably plagued by the decision of Bruce Ismay, president of Titanic’s White Star Line, to save himself while hundreds of innocents drowned. The opulence, the sometimes arrogance of first class, and the plight of men, women, and children in third class, who for reasons real and imagined, never stood a chance, have been recounted and debated ever since the magnificent ship went down.
This year marks Titanic’s 100th Anniversary, and a plethora of new novels, dramas, documentaries and musicals are setting sail to commemorate the occasion. But what more could there possibly be to say about one of the best known tragedies of history?
Perhaps, the opportunity to present, in picture form, the greatest story ever told—a story that captures not only the romance of the era and the drama of the tragedy, but a picture of the life Christ demonstrated for us, and through His sacrifice and charge, His love for the world. His is the true story that changed our history, our present, and our future.
The drama surrounding Titanic presented the perfect opportunity for that story in novel form—an Edwardian era painting of Christ in the character of a strong and wise man whose concern was for the good of others, to the point of saving them and securing their future, even as he sacrificed himself. Add the tale of a young man, desperate for love and family, for hope and a future—the very picture of “us.” And at last there’s the heroine, who must learn to love and forgive as she’s been loved and forgiven, who must learn that the purest form of love we can demonstrate to others is like that which Christ freely offers us—our response to His charge, to “love one another.”
As I wrote Promise Me This, parallel after parallel presented itself, lesson after lesson. But it had to be true to Titanic’s tragedy. I could not bend history. I didn’t need to.
The first time I saw a copy of the ship’s manifest I found details of a young man, Owen George Allum, a gardener who’d sailed third class from Southampton, England—a gardener who reminded me enough of an emigrating family member’s story to charge my imagination and make me dig deeper into history.
Later, in a Titanic exhibit, I saw Owen’s name again and learned that he’d drowned. A little research led me to his family, his intended destination, even the items found in his pockets once his body was recovered and sent to Halifax. From all of this I wove a fictional short story, The Legacy of Owen Allen, which eventually grew into the full length manuscript, Promise Me This.
I traveled to London and Southampton, England, to trace the last days and hours of some of Titanic’s vendors and crew before they set sail. I investigated the economic and societal history of the locals, and learned that because of a six-week coal strike (resulting in no work or pay for crewmen or dock workers for weeks) before Titanic sailed, nearly every Southampton family lost a member or friend newly/thankfully employed on the great ship, most often the breadwinner of a large family or aged parents. Devastation for the people of Southampton and surrounding areas lasted years beyond the ship’s foundering.
In two years the populace was hit again by the ravages of WWI—horrific bombing, severe rationing, and a war that crippled and claimed through hideous new weaponry young men labeled as “the lost generation,” changing forever all they and the world had known.
Finally, laying aside my stack of research books, and with the companionship of my wonderful chauffer-husband and grown children, I researched through museums, historic sites, and individuals the histories of WWI in England, France and Germany—everything from healed trenches to still-scarred families.
Walking the land and talking with natives helped me flesh out the stories of each of my characters in ways I could not from this side of the Atlantic. And it helped me better understand the seeds of bitterness and discontent sown in Germany after the war, seeds that would produce a harvest ripe for Hitler’s regime years later—all fodder for another book.
But at last, like my war weary characters, I turned toward home and hope, to write. What better place to set the home and hope of my characters than in a garden in our own Garden State—for weren’t we created to inhabit a garden? And when we failed, didn’t Jesus fulfill the law and break open a garden tomb on our behalf?
My story fell into place, simply because the real story, the Greatest Story, of which this is only a faint echo, had already been told.
Is it any wonder I loved writing this more than anything I’ve written?
When you can, take a stroll through the winding gardens of Leaming’s Run Gardens, in Swainton, just outside Cape May Courthouse, New Jersey, and think of Annie and Michael from Promise Me This. Think what we are meant to be, and of the One who made it possible. Some sacrifices affect others for a lifetime
One afternoon, young Michael Dunnagan steals away from his job to see the Titanic off. Through a sudden turn of events, he meets Owen Allen, a young man off to America to help his uncle in a gardening business. After a series of deceptions, Michael, who is not supposed to be on the ship, boards the Titanic, hoping to follow Owen to America and join him in this new business venture. Owen has left behind his sister, Annie, promising her that he will call for her once he is settled in America.
When the Titanic sinks, Owen dies and asks Michael to take care of his sister. Annie and Michael begin a correspondence that at first is friendly, but soon turns romantic. When WWI intervenes, it appears that the two may have lost each other because of various circumstances on both sides of the Atlantic, but love and grace prevail in the end.