I really enjoyed Cathy Gohlke’s “Secrets She Kept” and have been eager to read more of her books. “Promise Me This” is a story that weaves together two major world events; the tragedy of the Titanic and World War 1 that enveloped Europe and America just a couple of years later.
Is it plausible to think that a survivor of the tragedy at sea would soon be caught up in the maelstrom of a world war? Cathy Gohlke seemed to think so, and she does a good job of portraying the escalating events that flung her main character, Michael, into the war.
Michael is a runaway orphan. He becomes a stowaway on the Titanic, a ‘charity case’ that finds solace through the compassion of a stranger, Owen Allen. Owen makes sure Michael has a place to sleep, sharing his own bunk and meal ticket with the young orphaned teen, who is escaping an abusive uncle. Owen has plans of his own once he reaches New York, include meeting up with an aunt and uncle and helping them to build their garden nursery business. When Owen gives up his own lifejacket to ensure Michael’s survival he also asks Michael to take his place once he reaches New York, should he himself not survive .
More importantly, Owen’s last plea is to ask Michael to take on the well-being of Owen’s younger sister Anne, left in England, and ensure that someday she too is brought to America.
Switching back and forth between Annie’s story in England and Michael who reaches America, the novel does a good job depicting this volatile time period. The reader experiences the tragedy of world war on the horizon, the intensity of the battles of Verdun, and the incredible hardships, danger, and sheer hard work facing the (mostly) young nurses at the front.
As the book progressed, I found it hard to believe that Annie’s aunt Eleanor could be as vindictive and relentless in bringing such bodily and emotional harm to her niece. I also found Annie’s quick switch from hating and resenting Michael’s survival of the Titanic (when her own brother Owen did not), to suddenly falling in love with him through the exchange of just a few letters, a bit of a stretch. As if it were not enough to experience the tragedy of the Titanic and the war itself, the star-crossed lovers seem to experience one roadblock after another in their quest for personal happiness together.
I did enjoy the book, even with its many twists and turns, and it was a fast read for me. Cathy Gohlke’s enthusiasm for history and her talent lies in striking a chord with the reader, bringing home both the pathos of human conflict and the hope that there is something better to strive for, encouraging perseverance among the worst experiences that life can offer. Her positive lessons are depicted for the reader clearly through her characters’ lives; to free oneself from bitterness and anger through forgiveness and to triumph in even the most difficult of circumstances.