Cathy Gohlke back as our guest author. Cathy is the two-time Christy Award-winning author of Secrets She Kept, Saving Amelie (INSPY Award), Band of Sisters, Promise Me This (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2012), William Henry is a Fine Name and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, (one of Library Journal’s picks for Best of 2008, and winner of the Carol Award). Cathy and her husband divide their time between Northern Virginia and the Jersey Shore, enjoying time with their grown children and granddaughter.
Welcome, Cathy, and congratulations on your latest novel’s release, Secrets She Kept! We’d love to hear about the story.
Thank you, and thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to spend this time together! Here is a summary of Secrets She Kept:
All her life, Hannah Sterling longed for a close relationship with her estranged mother, Lieselotte. Following Lieselotte’s death, Hannah determines to unlock the secrets of her mother’s mysterious past and is shocked to discover a grandfather living in Germany.
Thirty years earlier, with Lieselotte’s father ascending the ranks of the Nazi party, a proper marriage for his daughter could help advance his career. But Lieselotte is in love—and her beloved Lukas is far from an ideal match, as he secretly works against the Reich. Even Lieselotte never imagined how far her father would go to ensure her cooperation.
Both Hannah’s and Lieselotte’s stories unfold as Hannah travels to Germany to meet her grandfather, who is hiding wartime secrets of his own. Longing for connection, yet shaken by all she uncovers, Hannah must decide if she can atone for her family's tragic past, and how their legacy will shape her future.
Secrets She Kept is a time split story. Lieselotte Sommer’s tale begins as a teen in Germany, 1938, on Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass, and continues until Liberation in 1945. Lieselotte is passionate, impetuous, lonely, and desperately in love with Lukas Kirchmann, friend of her older brother.
I love Lieselotte’s determination and loyalty to those she loves. I especially admire her fierce love and loyalty to Lukas’s mother, Frau Kirchmann.
Hannah Sterling is Lieselotte’s grown daughter. In 1972 Hannah mourns her mother’s passing, and the distance her mother always kept in their relationship. She must now face the fact that that distance can never close. In an effort to understand her mother better and find peace, Hannah unearths the secrets of Lieselotte’s past, and follows a trail of clues that lead to Germany and a grandfather she never knew existed. Hannah is compassionate, desperate to love and be loved, but not willing to cover up the secrets of the past. She determines to do whatever is necessary to right the wrongs her family committed during the war, but struggles with whether or not it is possible to make atonement, to redeem the sins of another? And what will be the cost?
I love Hannah’s determination to right the wrongs committed by her family, as well as to defend the innocent. She wasn’t always right, but she means well. Even when she is thwarted and learns that there is so very much she doesn’t know and doesn’t understand, she grieves, but is willing to learn and eventually to try again.
What did you enjoy most about writing Hannah’s story? What were the challenges?
I loved writing Hannah’s trail of discovery and her consequent emotions as she learned that her mother, father, and grandfather were not the people she’d imagined and judged them to be.
My greatest challenge was in keeping both stories true to their timeline and in not revealing too much of Lieselotte’s story before Hannah was ready to discover it.
You share a bit on your website about how the idea for Secrets She Kept was born. Will you tell us more about that now?
Secrets She Kept was conceived while researching WWII and touring Germany. Visits to concentration camps and interviews with surviving victims of the war gave me a broad picture of all that had happened. But interviews with Germans who’d either fought in the Wehrmacht or knew others who’d fought during the war gave me quite a different picture. I’d assumed that all Germans were shamed and embarrassed by Hitler’s agenda and cruel deeds. But I learned that wasn’t true. As one German put it, “Just because we lost the war doesn’t mean people changed their thinking.”
I learned that the war bred many deep secrets in families—secrets of good deeds unrewarded and secrets of evil deeds never discovered.
But I wondered, how did Holocaust survivors reclaim their lives and live beyond the tragedies of the war when anti-Semitism still existed? How did perpetrators and their families live with the horrors they’d inflicted? Were they sorry for what they’d done? Did they confess or try in any way to redeem the wrongs they’d committed? Those questions made me ask, too, how do we confront the far-reaching consequences of our actions or those of family members?
Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian, who, with her sister, father and many family members, helped Jews escape Nazi persecution during the war, inspired the answer in her book, The Hiding Place.
Your book that released last summer, Saving Amelie, also had ties to Germany and World War II. What do you enjoy about researching or writing about that era?
It has fascinated, even frightened me that a nation was swept into a passion while persecuting an entire group of human beings. Why didn’t more Germans stand up to Hitler and his degrading Nuremberg laws? How did intelligent people step onto such slippery moral slopes, losing their moral and spiritual compass, ultimately losing their ability to stop the monster they’d enabled? Can such superior racist attitudes be prevented in the future, and what are the warning signs? Do we see them in our society? If the answer is yes, what can we, as individuals, do about that?
Survivor stories have always fascinated and inspired me. What makes one person hold on until the bitter end and what makes another give up? I’m also intrigued by the way Resistance movements, families and communities were either torn apart or pulled together in the face of war.
Every story has a background that readers may or may not be privy to, but it sounds like the connection between past and present is especially prominent in Secrets She Kept. What did you enjoy about writing a story like this, and what were the challenges?
I loved submersing myself in the research for each generation’s time period, and loved interviewing survivors of the war. There was an urgency in each person’s story that made them want to tell it before their story dies with them. WWII was a period in human history so compelling, so rich in strong moral contrasts that it shone a bright light on human passions. At times the information I discovered was heartbreaking, but the resilient spirit of survivors was and is a tremendous thing. Understanding the viewpoints and psyche of the perpetrators as well as those who suffered under the Nazis was an education I’ll never forget, one that still haunts me. I loved writing Lieselotte’s and Hannah’s stories separately, then weaving them together, making sure the information revealed was never too much for one or the other. I loved writing about something so difficult, so emotionally and mentally challenging, and in the end acknowledging that I have no answers, only God does. There is peace and joy in that.
You tell a wonderful story on your website about when you first believed you wanted to be a writer. Will you share that with our readers?
Visitors, come back tomorrow for Cathy’s answer to this and some other great questions. In the meantime, you can enter for your chance to win a copy of Secrets She Kept! Either click below to enter our Rafflecopter drawing, or answer this question from Cathy in the blog comments:
What is the name of the inspirational Dutch Christian who, with her sister, father and many family members, helped Jews escape Nazi persecution during WWII, and shared her story in her book, The Hiding Place?
Thanks for stopping by – we’ll see you again tomorrow!