September 12, 2012

Book Reviews - Band of Sisters by Cathy Gohlke

Band of Sisters
by Cathy Gohlke

Cathy Gohlke, a Christy Award winning author, has hit another homerun with her newest book, Band of Sisters.  Historical fiction, the book follows the lives of Maureen O'Reilly and her sister, Katie Rose, as they leave Ireland and come to New York with the hope of independence and a better life.  It was a rough time for many of the immigrants who came into Ellis Island without the language or skills to support even the most meager of life styles.  But it was especially difficult for young, single girls without families.

When the hope of help from the wealthy Wakefield family did not work out, Maureen and her sister are forced to take what menial jobs they can find, and Maureen begins her web of lies among those trying to help her. Always lurking in the shadows of this story are the predators who wanted young girls to sell for the pleasure of wealthy men.  Maureen soon finds out just how dangerous those men can be.

 The author gave each of the main characters - Maureen and Katie Rose, the poor, Irish immigrants and Olivia and Dorothy, the wealthy society women -  conflicts to deal with and important decisions to make.  It was easy to get angry with both Maureen and Katie Rose at times, but the author lets us understand their situations and the consequences that could lie ahead for them.

 Gohlke not only vividly offers a description of the turmoil and distress of being an immigrant woman, but she also gives a clear picture of the white slave trade as it existed in the early 1900's.  Any young girl was in danger of being captured or lured into the trade, especially those who had no support systems in America. It was big business and even law enforcement would look the other way for their cut of the profits.  Isn't it sad that such young girls and children are still vulnerable to human trafficking today, more than one hundred years later?

I truly enjoyed the book for its historical account of the times, its discussion of an ongoing social problem, and for the characters and story that I became so involved with as the novel progressed.  I can heartily recommend. 

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Recently Ms. Gohlke was interviewed about her newest novel, Band of Sisters:
** What motivated you to write Band of Sisters?
C.G. - I’ve always been fascinated by the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. But I was horrified to learn that there are more than twice as many men, women and children enslaved today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This book was born of a passion to end modern-day slavery, and most of all, to ask, “What can I do to help in a need so desperate?”

** Why did you choose NYC 1910-1911 to tell this story? And how does human trafficking in that era compare to human trafficking today?
C. G. - I was inspired by an article I’d read about Alma Mathews. Alma was a small but determined woman who, armed with her umbrella and a hefty douse of fury, stood against dangerous men bent on exploiting immigrant women as they entered the U.S. through Castle Gardens, in old New York City. Alma ushered young women to her home, prepared them for employment, and helped them begin a safe new life in the city. It became a full time ministry involving many—all in the early days of the settlement house movement.
But my editor suggested that I set the story later, when immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island. As I researched that possibility, I found that the problem of exploitation and human trafficking had not only grown during those years, but that the strikes of NYC shirtwaist factory workers had made public the desperate need for women to make a living wage in safe circumstances. Necessary elements for the story and high drama were all a matter of public record—everything from the passing of the Mann Act to address the fear of white slavery to the Triangle Waist Factory fire.
Even though our technology, transportation, communication, etc., is different from the story’s era, many countries today are no further in providing rights and safeguards for women than the U.S. was in 1910. Some are further behind.
Many of the same ruses are used by traffickers to lure women into their snare now as they were then: better paying jobs for themselves and/or money for their families, flirtation, pretense of emotional caring and support, marriage, offers specifically for modeling jobs, offers for education, appeals for help of various kinds, plays on sympathies, etc.
In some cases, after having sex with someone they trusted, or after being drugged and forced into having sex, women or children are/were blackmailed. Fearful that their families will not believe them or will accuse them of promiscuity and reject them, they are afraid and feel compelled to sneak out and “service” men when called. Some are sold to traffickers or users by members of their own family, or by someone they trust.
Once trapped—sometimes after being unwittingly drugged and/or blackmailed—women are often transported far from their home (crossing borders to other states or countries). Held against their will through abuse, enforced poverty, lack of ID, lack of language skills, lack of visas or passports, they may simply not know who to trust or where to go for help in the country in which they find themselves. Isolation, threats to their person or their family, repeated brain washing that they are dirty, worthless,unwanted, unloved, and good for nothing but sex with paying customers are all tools that traffickers use to intimidate and control their victims.
Fear of what will happen if they try to escape, fear that they have ruined their lives and will have no other way to live, fear for themselves and loved ones, resulting health problems, feelings of hopelessness and a constantly reinforced sense of self-worthlessness all form formidable prisons for victims of trafficking. Even if it seems they can physically escape, they may not be able to break the emotional or mental chains that bind them.
All those things happened then, and they continue to happen to victims today.

**Your characters are strongly influenced by the question asked in Charles Sheldon’s classic, “In His Steps”—“what would Jesus do?” Why did you choose that book to help tell your story?
C. G. - After all my research I knew I had the historical elements needed. What I didn’t know was the inner conflict of each character, or the answer to the all-important question: “what can I do to help in a need so desperate?”  

I found my answer by confronting the question Sheldon posed in his very popular book of the time, “what would Jesus do?”
If we all truly do what Jesus would do, slavery will end. Jesus never exploited men or women—He uplifted them and showed them a path of hope, a new way of thinking and living. He never used children, or child labor for ease or gain—He blessed little ones, demonstrating their great worth. He never bought or sold babies to fulfill the bride “needs” of a one-child culture. He never bought or sold human organs, or fetuses, or body parts. He never lied to immigrants, never enslaved them, never threatened their families or loved ones or lives if they did not comply with His demands, never coerced or forced, never shamed or punished a single person into submission to His will. But in every way He set a moral compass, employed Divine compassion to the broken hearted and broken bodied, and held to account any and all who victimized others.

**Issues of sex slavery and human trafficking are foreign to most of us and uncomfortable to discuss. How can Christians respond?
C. G. - By speaking for those who have no voice. These are among the poor and needy of our day, in many cases the orphans that Jesus commanded us to care for.
We must remember that the discomfort is ours, and the desperate need is theirs. Being a Christian, a Christ follower, isn’t easy in a fallen world. Doing what Jesus did wasn’t easy or comfortable. He confronted demons and hypocrites. He stood against people who cared more about the monetary value of their livestock than they did about freeing one human being from demonic possession.
Jesus ate with “publicans and sinners” to the ruin of His reputation. Just as He is our example in loving one another and in protecting innocent young children, so He is our example in setting captives free, in loosening cords that bind, in rescuing women and children from prostitution, men from slavery.
In many countries of the world Christians pay with their lives for standing up for their faith and/or for protecting others. I’ve heard it said that only in America do we expect it to be easy to be a Christian. Talking about things that are uncomfortable to our sensibilities don’t seem so hard in comparison to the challenges our brothers and sisters in Christ face the world over.


For more about Cathy Gohlke and information about organizations working to fight human trafficking, please check out her website at: .

**This book was provided to me for my review from Tyndale House Publishers.  The opinions expressed are my own.

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