Four-time Christy Award winner Lynn Austin follows the lives of three sisters as they emigrate from Sweden to America and make a new life there in UNTIL WE REACH HOME.
Set in 1897, Austin’s story begins as 19-year-old Elin Carlson and sisters Kirsten and Sofia have lost both parents. Their older brother has left home, and they are dependent on their Uncle Sven and Aunt Karin, who take over the family farm and move in to care for them. But their protection soon turns into a nightmare. When Uncle Sven molests Elin --- then turns his attention to Sofia --- Erin realizes she must get her sisters away from the farm and to safety. She writes to her Uncle Lars in Chicago, and soon they are leaving the only home they’ve ever known.
As the story continues, Austin reveals various facets of each girl’s personality and character. Elin is haunted by the shame of the abuse she endured at the hands of her uncle and is determined to protect her younger sisters. She becomes suspicious of all men, and her fears and anxieties increase with each mile of the journey. Sofia is timid, homesick and innocent, and wants only to be loved and secure. She has to be cajoled and pushed every step of the journey, for she longs to go home. Kirsten is impetuous and imaginative, the creative one of the trio. After her passionate romance with the handsome Tor Magnusson ends, she brokenheartedly grieves the strangeness of loving and hating someone at the same time.
When the girls arrive in America, the dreams they had of a better life are crushed. Events begin to spiral out of control. Forced to choose between becoming mail-order brides or finding work in the city, they take a position cleaning a wealthy woman’s home. Through it, the three learn self-reliance and trust in God as they struggle to make the best of their circumstances.
Austin is a veteran historical fiction novelist (A PROPER PURSUIT) and includes solid historical details, from the cramped and unsanitary conditions of a two-week ocean crossing from England to America, to the types of food and clothing typical of the time period. She is careful to incorporate numerous sensory details, including what the girls might see, hear, taste and smell.
Sprinkled throughout are some nice touches of humor, including one scene where Sofia looks for reassurance in her mother’s Bible during a storm at sea and opens it to a story about a shipwreck. The novel lightly explores the meaning of home: from the childhood farmhouse in Sweden to home becoming, as Erin tells her sisters, “right here, right now, because we have each other.” One interesting plot twist brings Sofia and a German man who can’t understand Swedish into close proximity to each other, where they communicate using only Bible verses (hers in Swedish, his in German). Other intriguing scenes offer background on Ellis Island and immigration regulations, which invite the reader to imagine what it would have been like to enter America in the 19th century.
The first part of the novel moves more quickly than the second and third, and the action slows toward the middle. But Kirstin’s surprising situation helps create tension, and sparks of romance keep readers wondering what will happen next. Fans of inspirational historical fiction will enjoy Austin’s tale of three sisters who find faith, comfort, resiliency and love in a new country.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on October 1, 2008