Geesje de Jonge crossed the ocean at age seventeen with her parents and a small group of immigrants from the Netherlands to settle in the Michigan wilderness. Fifty years later, in 1897, she’s asked to write a memoir of her early experiences as the town celebrates its anniversary. Reluctant at first, she soon uncovers memories and emotions hidden all these years, including the story of her one true love.
At the nearby Hotel Ottawa Resort on the shore of Lake Michigan, twenty-three-year-old Anna Nicholson is trying to ease the pain of a broken engagement to a wealthy Chicago banker. But her time of introspection is disturbed after a violent storm aboard a steamship stirs up memories of a childhood nightmare. As more memories and dreams surface, Anna begins to question who she is and whether she wants to return to her wealthy life in Chicago. When she befriends a young seminary student who is working at the hotel for the summer, she finds herself asking him all the questions that have been troubling her.
Neither Geesje nor Anna, who are different in every possible way, can foresee the life-altering surprises awaiting them before the summer ends.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw Hendrik standing in the doorway. The room seemed to grow very warm. His nearness made me suddenly aware of my soiled apron and my messy hair, falling loose from my braids after a long day of housework.
“May I ask you something?” he said. I nodded, my throat so tight I wasn’t sure I could make a sound. “Why have you been so kind to us,” he asked, “when we are such an inconvenience to you?”
I swallowed to loosen the lump in my throat. “Because . . . because we’re Christians . . . and it’s what Jesus would do.”
When Hendrik didn’t reply I grew nervous. His face didn’t reveal what he was thinking. I had never spoken to a stranger about my faith before, and I worried that he might laugh at me or mock my family. I knew I shouldn’t care what he thought of me, this soldier who had been forced upon us. And yet I did. I held my breath as I waited for his reaction.
“I have never met people like you and your family before,” he finally said. “People who live the way the Bible tells us to live.” He gazed directly at me, his expression open and frank. It unnerved me. Maarten was always too shy to look directly at me, staring at his feet or the table or the wall beyond my head, instead.
I leaned against the work counter, the dishes forgotten. “Are you a Christian, too? Do you know the Bible?”
He ran his fingers through his fair hair, which was darker at the roots, making it stick up in places like a small boy’s. “My parents baptized me in the village church. We attended services there when I was growing up. We learned about the birth of Jesus and how He died on a cross, but knowing those things didn’t seem to make a difference in anyone’s life.”
“That’s why we left the state church and started a separate one,” I said. “We think Christians should do more than just agree with what the Bible says. We should obey it and do things like loving our enemies.”
Hendrik still stood in the doorway, and I was afraid he would leave now that I had answered his question. I didn’t want him to. “May I ask you a question?” I said. I waited for him to nod. “Why did you become a soldier?”
He leaned against the doorframe, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets. “My parents died in the cholera epidemic nine years ago.” His gaze never left my face. “I was eleven. I lived with my aunt and uncle for a while, but they had too many children of their own and couldn’t afford to keep feeding me. I couldn’t find regular farm work after the potato blight, so joining the army seemed like my only choice.”
“Do you regret your decision?”
“No . . .” He hesitated before saying, “It brought me here.”
Some novels leave you feeling so full you don’t have room for your own words. That was the overwhelming feeling I had when I finished this novel – and yet I was desperately scrambling to find more because I wanted Anna’s story to keep going! But Geesje’s story . . . it’s one that will stay with you once you have read it. It will leave an impression on your heart and become part of the ‘experience’ you draw on as you navigate the waters of your own life, through the calm and the storm. It is full of wisdom gained through some of the most difficult experiences and decisions life can throw at you and, to be perfectly honest, is one of the most inspiring stories of faith I have ever read – fiction or not.
There are two aspects to this story. The first is the ‘present’ (in this case, 1897), told from the point of view of both Anna Nicholson and Geejse. Anna arrives at Hotel Ottawa after a turbulent crossing of Lake Michigan, nursing a broken heart and weighed down by some of life’s deepest questions. Prior to leaving Chicago she had been secretly attending Moody’s Chicago Avenue church – a church that feels very familiar to her, even though she cannot remember ever having attended before. It is here that she hears the minister speaking about Jesus as if He was his best friend; words that touch a deep, empty place in her soul. Even when her fiancé, William, forbids her from attending, she cannot help but be drawn back to learn more. When he learns that she has defied him, he ends their engagement.
Derk Vander Veen mistakes Anna for someone else when he sees her sitting on a bench near Black Lake on her first morning at Hotel Ottawa, but it’s a mistake that leads to a tentative friendship when Anna discovers that Derk is studying to become a minister. Although she knows her mother would frown upon her spending time with a hotel employee, Derk listens in a way that no one else has, and she finds herself sharing her desire for the freedom to explore the differences between the formal religion she has grown up with, and the Christian faith that seems so . . . real.
Geesje knows just how much is sometimes sacrificed for religious freedom. Although she and Anna do not meet until towards the end of the book, it is her wisdom that Derk seeks as he and Anna grapple with questions of faith, and of love. And it is her memoir that provides the second aspect to this story, a story so heart-wrenching at times that I had to put the book down and give myself time to process what I was feeling.
I’m not going to share any of the particulars here, but as Geesje encounters hardship, heartbreak, tragedy, and loss through the years, she repeatedly asks, “Why? If it was God’s will to come here, why are we still suffering? If God loves me, how could he allow this to happen to me?” And yet in the face of her anger, her doubts, and her questions, when faced with the most agonizing decision of her life, she goes against every inclination of her heart and obeys God; and discovers that God is faithful. Sometimes it takes many years for our eyes to be opened, but as Geesje says to Derk: “Isn’t that the definition of faith – moving forward through the darkness, clinging to God?”
Geesje’s story is also a powerful exploration of love in the context of marriage, which parallels beautifully with the questions Anna and Derk ask themselves and each other as they reconsider their respective engagements and the balance between duty, love, and compromise.
It is impossible to read this novel and not come away challenged, inspired, and deeply affected. A truly beautiful story that I’ve sent ‘straight to the pool room’!
I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest review.
Release date: 4 October 2016
Publisher: Bethany House
Author’s website: http://lynnaustin.org/