Anna Nicholson is recovering from a broken engagement. Her ex-fiance William has put his foot down. It simply is not acceptable for Anna to continue seeking out her religious questions and attend the unpretentious church in Chicago that has seemed like such a place of safety for her. Anna retreats to a hotel on Lake Ottawa in Michigan to give herself some breathing space. While there, she meets a young seminary student, Derk, who also has his own choices to make.
Derk is also hoping to marry the love of his life; however Caroline, his fiance, doesn’t want to be a minister’s wife. She feels it would make too many demands on their family life. Who is right? Should Derk choose an alternate career path? Should Caroline adjust her expectations of Derk?
In order to find answers to these questions, Derk turns to Geesje, his neighbor, who practically raised him after he lost his own mother. Geesje came to America from the Netherlands with her parents as a young seventeen year old girl. Fleeing religious persecution, Geesje has faced her own dilemmas with life-choices. Now in her sixties, she is asked by the town of Holland, Michigan, to write her memories as one of the town’s first immigrants. As Geesje begins to write her memoirs, she finds parallels in her own story with that of her young friend, Derk.
“I stop writing and drop my pencil as if it’s on fire. I close the notebook and stuff it into my desk, remembering the mistakes I made, the tragic choices I faced, and the people I hurt in the process. The memories cause me immeasurable pain. Even now. Even after all these years.”
‘Waves of Mercy’ was so well done. The dual story, unlike others I have read, was never confusing. I had no trouble keeping these characters, their stories or time frames, straight.
When the possibility arises for her to become re-engaged, Anna, knowing that Derk has a close relationship with the Lord, goes to him with her questions. Should she still marry William, knowing that he expects her to obey his wishes and stop attending the church of her choice? How important is religious freedom and where does it fit into the parameters of marriage?
“I learned that my father’s business is in financial trouble. He needs the family connections with William and his bank in order to survive the crisis. I love my father. I would do anything for him and Mother. They wouldn’t know how to survive if they lost all their money.”
“Do they know that’s why you’re making this sacrifice and marrying William?”
“No. But it’s hardly a sacrifice. William is a good man from a fine, churchgoing family. I’ll be a wealthy woman. I’m sure he’ll let me give generously to the poor. I can do a lot of good as his wife.”
Lynn Austin is not afraid to explore the hard questions of life within the lives of her characters. Some questions are never fully or completely answered to the satisfaction of the characters in this historical fiction novel, but within the struggles there are opportunities for growth and maturity and life-lessons of perseverance within hardship.
As we read through Geesje’s story we live through the Civil War with all of its anxieties for her sons and her friends’ sons when they go off to fight.
“As the war dragged on and on into another dreadful year, casualties among our area men began to mount. Every day brought news of Union setbacks and victories, with more and more deaths and appalling injuries. Every day we gathered with other worried families on a downtown street corner not far from the print shop to listen to the news as it was read aloud, holding our breaths as we waited to see if one of our Holland boys was listed among the wounded or dead.”
Along with Geesje and Maarten we hope their home and business survives the terrible fire that sweeps through the town, and admire their tenacity when they work to rebuild. We want to find out how Anna, who was adopted, became part of her family and why she has the memories that hold clues to her own story. We too ask all the “why?” questions when the characters suffer yet another setback, another disappointment, another terrible loss.
“Where are your parents, Geesje?” Hendrik was looking all around the cabin as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.
“They died several months ago. Of malaria.”
The story of the settlement of Holland in Michigan by the Dutch was an unknown to me, and their struggles to carve out a new life in a new, unfamiliar land with very few comforts (if any), were mind-boggling. Could we today have done the same?
I found Geeseje’s writings fascinating. Although I predicted the tie-in that happens near the end, her story still held my interest enough that I wanted to keep reading. I admired her courage and determination to do the right thing, even though at first her heart was breaking.