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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Twist on a Familiar Tale By Christy Award Winning Author Cathy Gohlke

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.

Available for pre-order at Barnes & Noble and Amazon


  1. Oh wow, what a fantastic journey for a fantastic book!

  2. Cathy, your book sounds amazing. The movie Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio(sp?) and Kate Winslet is one of my all-time favorites. What a great twist on a classic story. It looks like you did a lot of research for your novel. It sounds like a winner!

    ~Cecelia Dowdy~

  3. Even though we've talked about this book many times, and I've even read it to give you feedback, I didn't realize the depth of your research. It's a beautiful and powerful story, and I know thousands of readers are going to be deeply touched by the journeys of Owen, Michael and Annie. I am looking forward to helping you spread the word about Promise Me This!

  4. Back when I was about 14, the first novel I ever tried to write centered around the Titanic. Of course I never finished it, but it fueled my desire to write. So because I love that subject and your writing, Cathy, I'm so excited to read this book! Of course I'll probably have to wait until we arrive home from our first ever cruise next month. Too much fodder for my already overactive imagination! :)

    1. Titanic captured my imagination at about the same age, Anne. It would be wonderful if you still have that manuscript!
      Enjoy your cruise--and, yes, read "Promise Me This" AFTER you return!

  5. Thank you for sharing the excitement of this journey ladies! Research for this book has been a highlight in my life. I've learned so much from so many--not only details of history woven into this story, but insights to carry into my life and writing. What a joy to share those discoveries through story!

  6. Cathy, so glad to have you here today! As I've shared with you privately, my daughter is a huge Titanic fan(which sounds terrible about a shipwreck, doesn't it?) A few years ago, we toured one of the museums that housed artifacts from wreckage--of course, I went through there with a pen and a notebook just you just never know with the right story might smack you in the face!

    Your story is the perfect story to share on this one hundredth year anniversary.

    Thanks again!

  7. Oh, Patty--I'm surprised we didn't bump into one another in the Titanic exhibit hallways! That's just it, stories are everywhere, and as writers we're always on the watch for the one that resonates.

    Thank you so much for having me today--it's a pleasure to share the background of "Promise Me This" with writers and readers!

  8. Your books always capture emotion so realistically, I can't wait to read this! Interesting echo of the Costa captain getting off the boat first ...

    I had never thought of the impact to one particular area because of providing most of the employees. How sad. And it shows how far-reaching the effects of a tragedy can be, even 100 years later.

  9. Wow, I love both the parallels and the research that went into this story. It is interesting how this tragedy has taken hold in the public imagination, since there have been worse ship disasters before and since. But the fact that it cpatured public attention so thoroughly right off the bat has meant that more information has been preserved for diligent researchers like yourself to pull together and share. Thanks!

  10. Oh, this is going to be a must-read, I can tell.

    I'm writing a book right now that releases in December, and it has similar themes to this one. It too is a Titantic story, but when my editor contracted it, I had no thought about the 100th anniversary of the tragic event. Makes the story that much more appropriate.

    Of course, mine is much more simplistic in it's a sweet romance with a far shorter timeline, and is book 3 in a series, but fun to think you and I both have Titanic-themed books releasing the same year. :)

    I still remember meeting you in the bookstore in Delaware before you'd sold your first book. Before either of us had sold a book, I believe. How far we've come.

    1. Good memories, Tiffany, with lots of wonderful experiences between then and now!

      It's hard to believe that 100 years have passed since Titanic's tragedy. As Christine and Kate mentioned it had such far reaching affects on the populace at the time, and so much about it and the era still capture our imaginations.

      Wishing you all the best on your own Titanic novel!

  11. They say truth is stranger than fiction. As a writer, I love to hear stories of what one may think of as dry research weaving a beautiful story of real lives. Your book sounds wonderful.

  12. Thank you all for sharing the enthusiasm for this theme. That contagious joy is one of the many things I love about connecting with writers who have a heart for the Lord and the stories He lays on our individual hearts--we're so thoroughly woven together in purpose and so unique in the perspective He knit into our bones. What a community!

  13. I love hearing the story behind the story. I'm speaking to a group of writers about research soon and hope to use some of this post as an example, Cathy. I look forward to reading your book of the heart.

  14. Thank you, Marti! I'm glad if this was helpful, and wish you the best in the preparation of your talk!

  15. I can't wait until your book comes out! Please hold open an interview slot for me. :)

  16. Another beautifully crafted story by Cathy. I can't wait to read it!


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