Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: Until We Reach Home by Lynn Austin

Title: Until We Reach Home
Author: Lynn Austin
Publisher: Bethany House, October 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7642-0495-1
ISBN-10: 0-7642-0495-1

The only way 19-year-old Elin Carlson can make sure her sisters are safe from Uncle Sven is to keep them in sight every moment or move away from their Swedish farm. When Uncle Lars sends tickets, she knows moving to America is the solution. But how will she convince shy 16-year-old Sofia and willful 18-year-old Kirsten that leaving home is best – without sharing her own dark secret?

All through the long voyage, she encourages her stubborn and despondent sisters with dreams of how wonderful life in America will be. But when they arrive and things only get worse, the girls’ bonds of sisterly loyalty and love are tested almost to breaking. In Until We Reach Home, Lynn Austin tells a tale of three Swedish sisters coming to America in 1897. Will they every find their place, a place that is as much a home as the one they lost when Mama and Papa died?

Austin tells the story from the viewpoint of each sister. In this way we get to know them equally well and are privy to their secrets, secrets that affect their behavior and have them acting like typical siblings -- from snippy to loving -- towards each other. A few despicable secondary characters, romances found in unlikely places, and an ending as neatly symmetrical as a Shakespearean comedy make Until We Reach Home a satisfying read from beginning to end.

Besides being complex, realistic and interesting, I found Elin, Kirsten, and Sofia the most sympathetic of all characters I’ve met so far in Austin’s books. Their vulnerability and innocence had me worried about their safety. Their flaws helped me identify and sympathize with each

I like the way Austin’s writing doesn’t get in the way of her storytelling. Her style is clear, direct and often vivid. And even though she moves from sister to sister to do the telling, I was never confused about whose head I was in. If a piece of fiction’s job is to give the reader an experience of a different time and place, this book certainly succeeds. Here, for example, we experience the ship to America through Sofia’s eyes:

Sofia tried to make the best of it for the next couple of days, but no matter where she went there were always hordes of foul-smelling people reeking of perspiration packed tightly beside her like herring in a barrel. In good weather, everyone crowded up on deck and the men smoked pungent cigarettes, making it impossible to breathe the clean ocean air. Sofia had taken the aroma of sweet, fresh air for granted all her life, but now she hungered for just a tiny whiff of hay or pine trees or even the barnyard.
Austin explores the themes of family and finding a home. Three women characters fighting and winning against adversity send a message of women’s empowerment. She underlines, through Sofia, the facts of God’s love and forgiveness. The story also gives insights into Swedish culture and how difficult being a non-English speaking immigrant must be. The way Austin depicts the American Swedish community in Chicago felt altogether believable with its old-world village mentality.

If you’re looking for a captivating read that will whisk you away to a time and place 100 years ago, Until We Reach Home fits the bill. At 428 pages you might even be able to stretch it out over several days – if you can bear to set it down.

More review of books by Lynn Austin:

A Proper Pursuit

A Woman's Place

Gods and Kings

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