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
I enjoyed this book, and I have repeatedly found Lynn Austin’s books to be compelling and moving.