Lynn Austin. Until We Reach Home. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2008. See here to buy the book.
As I was reading this book, I thought to myself more than once, “This book is Christy-Award worthy.” Lynn Austin has written a lot of books. Many of them have received Christy Awards (wikipedia says that Lynn Austin “holds the record for most Christy Awards won: eight”), and many of them have not. Overall, the ones that won Christy Awards left a stronger impression on me than the ones that did not. The exception to this would be All Things New, her novel about Reconstruction in the post-Civil War American South (see my book write-up here). That book left a strong impression on me, even though it did not win a Christy Award.
It turns out that Until We Reach Home did win a Christy Award!
Until We Reach Home is set in the nineteenth century, and it is about three Swedish girls, Elin, Kirsten, and Sofia. Their mother died years before, and their grieving father then committed suicide, which brought shame to the three girls in their town in Sweden. The three girls were then raised by their Uncle Sven, who sexually abused Elin. Elin wants to protect her two sisters, so she arranges to travel with them to Chicago.
Overall, while the three sisters interact with and care for each other, they strike me as rather independent. Kirsten, for example, has her own life. In Sweden, she was close to her brother Nils and his friend Tor, and she hung out with them a lot. She had a romantic relationship with Tor. Throughout the book, it is almost as if the three sisters share space and interact with each other, and even offer opinions about each other, yet they have their own secrets, problems, experiences, personalities, and destinies.
The book was slow for about a hundred pages, but it picked up when we (the readers) learned that Kirsten is pregnant with Tor’s baby. The Ellis Island officials do not allow single pregnant women to become U.S. citizens, for they fear that the women will become dependent on the state, so Kirsten contrives a story to get into the country, and she hides her pregnancy from her sisters. In the course of the book, the three sisters experience the less-than-glowing hospitality of their aunt, work for a rich cranky old woman who is not so tough underneath, and find their unique destinies.
What I enjoyed about the book was the suspense that I felt in wondering how everything would turn out. What would happen, for example, once the sisters learned each other’s secrets? Near the end of the book, the three sisters are wondering where they will live and work, and each sister finds a different solution: Elin’s plan is for the three sisters to travel to Wisconsin, where Elin would marry a man with whom she has corresponded; Kristen’s plan is to marry a local newspaperman, and her sisters would live at his place; and Sofia’s plan is to get a job singing at the local theater, and the sisters would live together in an actor’s apartment. The three sisters clash on their plans, but then they go their separate ways. And yet, that is not the end, for a new development places a potential roadblock in Elin’s plan, and Kirsten has to iron out difficulties and challenges in her marriage. The book had strong protagonists, and I was happy for them when they succeeded and found happiness.
Something else that I liked about the book was the cat, Tomte. He’s a big cat, and his tail twitches, like Dante, one of our kitties. I was wondering what happened to Tomte after his owner, the cranky rich woman, dies, since her daughter-in-law did not like cats. I was as excited to see him as the three sisters in the book!
There are two things that I would like to note. First of all, Elin feels guilty because she was abused by her Uncle Sven. She had turned to him for comfort after her parents died, and he took advantage of her. Elin is told that this was not her fault, and yet she turns to God for forgiveness. I realize that a significant aspect of Lynn Austin’s fiction is God’s forgiveness, for that is what the Gospel is about, but, in the case of Uncle Sven’s abuse, Elin had done nothing that required forgiveness, for she was the victim. Lynn Austin would agree with that, I am sure—-I seriously doubt that she is for blaming the victim—-but the part about Elin receiving forgiveness was an odd detail in the story. That is not to say that Elin did not have her own character flaws or areas in which she needed to grow: she could be rather controlling and overbearing in her concern for her sisters, she believed that she knew best, she thought that the whole world rested on her shoulders, and she had a tendency to think the worst of people she did not know. She did need personal healing, on some level.
Second, there is Sofia’s presentation of the Gospel to the cranky old woman, who was sharing with Sofia some of the skeletons in her own closet. Sofia says on page 314:
“…I’ve been reading my mama’s Bible and…it says that we’ve all done bad things. But if we admit that we’ve done wrong and tell Jesus we’re sorry for it and begin to follow His word, then his death will count in our place. He’ll take all of our sins away so that when we get to heaven, the pearly gates will swing wide open to let us in.”
What stood out to me was how this Gospel presentation was depicting the relationship between salvation and good works. We start to obey Jesus’ word, THEN his death counts in our place? I thought that his death counts in our place, THEN we start to obey his word. Well, there are biblical passages about repentance being a prerequisite for the remission of sins (I think of Acts 2:38), and one can perhaps define repentance as beginning to obey Jesus’ word, or at least wanting to do so. I have personal issues with conflating obedience to Jesus’ word with salvation because, quite frankly, I fall short of Jesus’ commands. But I do agree that seeking God’s forgiveness does (or at least should) entail some change of attitude towards sin, a desire to go in another direction.
I enjoyed this book, and I have repeatedly found Lynn Austin’s books to be compelling and moving.