Three-time Christy and two-time Carol and INSPY Award–winning and bestselling author Cathy Gohlke writes novels steeped with inspirational lessons, speaking of world and life events through the lens of history. Her latest historical novel, Until We Find Home (Tyndale House), is an unforgettable portrait of life on the British home front, challenging us to remember that bravery and family come in many forms. In this interview, Cathy shares why she chose to set her WWII novel in England’s Lake District, the historical research that went into writing this novel, and how beloved authors Beatrix Potter and C. S. Lewis have inspired her…
What inspired you to write Until We Find Home?
Alarmed by the plight of young refugees fleeing gangs in Mexico to cross United States borders, and heart heavy for victims and refugees worldwide who’ve suffered and continue to suffer under oppressive regimes, I looked for a moment in history to tell their tale as I wish it could play out. I didn’t have to look far.
The Kindertransport of 1938–1940 brought 10,000 predominantly Jewish children to Great Britain for refuge from Nazi oppression. Accounts abound of men and women who rescued children through resistance, often at great cost to themselves—even life itself. But what happened next? What happened when those children entered countries of refuge? I wondered about the average person and what role they might have played once the children were out of immediate danger . . . and what role we might play in the world’s need today.
The UN Refugee Agency reported that in 2015, 51% of the world’s refugees were children. Jesus told us to care for widows and orphans. How do we do that from where we live, and as Christians, how do we reconcile Jesus’ directive with the world’s reality and our need for safe borders?
The characters’ personalities were in inspired, in part, by people I know (the youngest character, Aimee, was inspired by my granddaughter). Some of the children’s antics and some of the older characters’ struggles were inspired by my own life stories, including Miranda’s journey with cancer. Bluebell Wood’s secret garden and many of the books and poems Claire loves in the story are based on books and poems I grew up knowing and loving—thanks especially to my dear grandmother, who read to me.
This novel embodies a great many things important to me. It is, in some ways, my victory book through battling cancer.
The novel is set during WWII in England’s Lake District—not a location we typically think of in relation to the war. What is unique about this location and why did you choose to set your novel there?
England’s magnificent Lake District—breathtakingly beautiful and pristine—might seem an unlikely place to portray wartime life on the home front. In reality, the area demonstrates just what could happen to an unsuspecting English village—a location that seemed safe and far from the maddening war.
Because of its apparent safety, the Sunderland Flying Boat Factory built an entire village—Calgarth—there to house its employees and manufacture its flying boats for the war effort. After the war, those empty buildings set amid the peaceful and beautiful Lake District became temporary homes for the Windermere Boys—over 300 children who had barely survived Nazi concentration camps in Europe and who were in desperate need of rest and restoration.
Nearby Grizedale Hall became one of the first prisoner of war camps for German prisoners—particularly naval officers. In Keswick, a nondescript pencil factory, which had supplied the nation’s pencils for years, secretly created spy pencils during the war—pencils with hollow barrels in which tightly rolled maps were hidden to aid British aviators shot down over enemy territory. In each eraser was a compass.
The region, like other areas deemed “safe,” took in child evacuees from Britain and refugees from foreign lands. The Lake District was also the home of Beatrix Potter Heelis—world-renowned children’s author and illustrator. Including the whimsy of snippets from her stories and her ironic character as an older woman during these years provided a contrast and relief from the fear of invasion that residents endured for years. These were just a few of the things that drew me to this portion of England’s “green and pleasant land.”
How do you expect the novel, especially the struggles of your characters, to resonate with your audience?
Until We Find Home confronts fear and the lies we tell ourselves about our need to become worthy in order to be loved and valued. Freedom from our own demons, forgiveness received and given, and redemption through Christ are available to all who believe.
Claire learns that repentance and belief opens a personal relationship with Christ (not simply a “legal transaction”) leading to the abundant life He died to give us. Miranda learns that dying with grace and dignity is not as important as learning to live in God’s grace. These are things I’ve had to learn in life, and I hope these characters’ journeys spill into the hearts of readers.
I also hope readers will ponder this: Most of us live quiet lives, rarely making decisions that change the world. But what if we could change the life of one person by providing a home and family for them? How would we cope with the everydayness, not to mention the prejudice, public opinion, injustice, necessary sacrifice, and potential crises? Would we do it? Will we?
There are no easy answers, and the answers are not the same for everyone. But we have been made for hard things. Will we stand up or sit down?
I also hope that the writings of C. S. Lewis will be brought to the attention of readers who may not know him or who may want to revisit his books. His was a voice of reason in a terrifying time—a voice of integrity and purpose that is needed in our day.
Can you tell us about the historical research that went into writing this novel? Did you learn anything new that surprised you?
Knowing I would set this story during WWII in England’s Lake District, in 2014 I traveled with my friend and writing colleague Carrie Turansky to England and Scotland, where we both did research for our book projects.
For me, we traveled to Windermere and the Lake District to research Beatrix Potter and her renowned Hill Top Farm, explore the poetry and world of Wordsworth, and learn just what happened to refugees and evacuees in the district during WWII.
As a result I learned more about the Sunderland Flying Boat Factory and its village of Calgarth, camps for German prisoners of war including Grizedale Hall, wartime homes for British evacuees and foreign refugees, the Keswick Pencil Museum and the famous spy pencil, the postwar arrival of the Windermere Boys, and so much more.
I ran my fingers over the desk where Wordsworth had carved his name as a boy, visited his burial ground, and fell in love with that poet’s fields of golden daffodils, the heady perfume of lilacs, the glory of woodlands spread with sapphire carpets of bluebells, and newborn lambs tottering across the fells, butting tiny heads against their mothers’ sides in search of lunch.
We ferried across Lake Windermere, ate Grasmere’s famous gingerbread, and took tea with jam and bread. Nowhere is the grass greener or the air purer than the Lake District in springtime.
Beatrix Potter Heelis’s Hill Top Farm, with its rooms and their contents reminiscent of her books, was a real treat. During WWII, Hill Top Farm housed British evacuees.
Our research trip culminated when we joined a ten-day tour of Scotland’s “Highlands, Islands, and Gardens,” guided by Liz Curtis Higgs. Forty ladies followed in Liz’s wake as she inspired us through Bible study each morning, then guided us through magnificent Scotland by day. As a result of that trip, I could not help but include in my story a good Scottish doctor, as well as memories of the terrible feud between the MacDonalds and Campbells. In regard to that feud, we visited Glencoe and the site of that terrible massacre.
That was the travel portion of my research. Internet investigations and the reading of books, old and new, continued for months. Included in those books were wartime diaries, especially those compiled from Britain’s Mass Observation Project; day-by-day histories of the war waged against Britain; journals and letters from Beatrix Potter Heelis; journals, letters, and biographies of C. S. Lewis; the books and notes of C. S. Lewis; the history of Glencoe; biographies and histories of Sylvia Beach and details of Shakespeare and Company, the American bookstore in Paris; studies of Europe’s child refugees housed in Britain; and so much more. Perhaps the most fun was found in rereading childhood classics.
Stories of wartime like Until We Find Home highlight the difficulty of living in uncertainty and dealing with the unexpected on a daily basis. How does faith play into this aspect of the novel and into the novel more generally?
Each day is a gift, not a guarantee. Each day offers us a new beginning to remain focused on what we can do, to stay in the moment with our eyes on the Giver of Life, rather than to cower, paralyzed because we don’t know how we’ll deal with tomorrow. This is faith that Claire learns—faith we all learn—to live in the present and surrender the future, and our worry for the future, to God. Knowing that not a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s knowledge—and that we are more valuable than many sparrows—is a reminder that “God’s got this.”
It doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen—as Claire learned and Miranda knew. Jesus assured us that there will be trouble in this world. But the good news is that we don’t go it alone—He is with us, and He has overcome the world. Fear, as Claire learned, is a pinpoint in time, but faith is long-term—eternity driven—and sees the bigger picture.
Keep reading to find out about the characters that surprised her, how they have reflected the challenges in her own life, and how Beatrix Potter and C. S. Lewis have inspired Cathy in her life and writing…