Author Cathy Gohlke does not hesitate delving into rough territory through her novels, going where angels fear to tread. With masterful storytelling, she champions the oppressed and victims of abuse. This includes those found in Christian circles—abuse that nobody likes to acknowledge or talk about. I mean the corruption that occurs under the auspices of church leadership or in so-called Christian homes.
In her book Night Bird Calling, Cathy shows the dangers and horrific outcomes of three kinds of abuse, all under the guise of Christianity: domestic abuse, religious abuse, and racism in America during the pre-World War II era, in southern Appalachia and elsewhere.
If you like beautifully written stories that don’t shy away from tough issues, then read on.
Cathy has won numerous awards:
- William Henry is a Fine Name — 2007 Christy Award
- I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires — 2009 Christy Award & Carol Award
- Saving Amelie — 2015 INSPY Award
- Secrets She Kept — 2016 Christy Award, INSPY Award, & Carol Award
- The Medallion — 2020 Christy Award
When Lilliana Swope’s beloved mother dies, Lilliana gathers her last ounce of courage and flees her abusive husband for the home of her only living relative in the foothills of No Creek, North Carolina. Though Hyacinth Belvidere hasn’t seen Lilliana since she was five, she offers her cherished great-niece a safe harbor. Their joyful reunion inspires plans to revive Aunt Hyacinth’s estate and open a public library where everyone is welcome, no matter the color of their skin.
Slowly Lilliana finds revival and friendship in No Creek—with precocious eleven-year-old Celia Percy, with kindhearted Reverend Jesse Willard, and with Ruby Lynne Wishon, a young woman whose secrets could destroy both them and the town. When the plans for the library also incite the wrath of the Klan, the dangers of Lilliana’s past and present threaten to topple her before she’s learned to stand.
With war brewing for the nation and for her newfound community, Lilliana must overcome a hard truth voiced by her young friend Celia: Wishing comes easy. Change don’t.
In the early 1940s, as war progresses in Europe, Lilliana Grace needs to get away from a horribly abusive situation at home in Philadelphia. She’s not safe with either her father or her despicable husband—both narcissists with evil plans for her. Since they are well-respected in their church and community, Lillianna has nobody to turn to in Philadelphia. She must leave, and time is of the essence. She arrives in No Creek, North Carolina to find sanctuary with her great-aunt, Hyacinth Belvidere. This is a place she hasn’t visited since age five.
Though worried her husband might track her down, she finds home and community in No Creek. With her great-aunt’s encouragement, Lillianna musters the courage to embrace life here. She still lives with scars and wounds, but doesn’t hibernate. In fact, she is inspired to turn Hyacinth’s home, known as Garden’s Gate, into a library for all people, no matter their status or color.
Thus begins her plunge into the fires of yet another kind of abuse: racism, culminating in the Ku Klux Klan’s involvement.
Three points of view relay this story: Lilliana, plucky eleven-year-old Celia Percy, and Reverend Jesse Willard of Shady Grove Baptist Church. Celia’s impact throughout the story is just as great as the adults’ impact. Young Celia is precocious and grandiose, with spunk that can elicit trouble, yet espousing bravery and cunning as required.
Also in the character line-up are Gladys, Ida Mae, Ruby Lynne, and Granny Chree. Gladys is Hyacinth’s cook and mama to Celia. She’s Southern in every way, very protective of her children while her husband’s in jail. The storekeeper, Ida Mae, is gossipy and judgmental. Granny Chree is an herbalist and midwife. Ruby Lynne helps at the library and tutors. There are others who cause plenty of trouble. And Lillianna’s husband could show up at any moment . . .
Various themes are explored, including the distortion of God through the failures of earthly fathers. Despite violence and heavy issues, nothing is overly graphic.
The dark side of Appalachian culture—racism, poverty, moonshine, and addiction—is prevalent, but darkness doesn’t get the last word. Hope prevails through beautiful prose and a raw, riveting story which includes periodic quotations of Oswald Chambers.
Questions about Night Bird Calling
What was your inspiration for writing Night Bird Calling? What’s your personal connection to the setting or situation?
Cathy: Years ago, I wrote a number of short stories based on some quirky characters in a fictional North Carolina foothills town called No Creek. I loved those characters, but to create a novel I needed an outside character who could see both strengths and foibles in my town folk and still care about them, still want to become part of their community, and who could tie their stories together.
For many years I’ve also wrestled with the idea of writing about the racial divide and abuse I saw growing up during years of the civil rights movement in the South, as well as domestic abuse and church oppression, things I experienced in my youth and young womanhood. Night Bird Calling is the marriage of all those experiences and stories.
Why did you choose the time period to be on the brink of World War II? Did you consider other time periods first?
Cathy: I see a number of correlations between the years leading up to WWII and our present day. Economic fears, joblessness, uncertainty about where our world is headed, questions about our responsibility and ability to help those who’ve been abused or are in need, and our serious racial divide are all issues people grappled with in 1941 just as we do today.
Sometimes it’s easier to view our complex difficulties and find creative solutions by viewing them through the lens of a historic time frame rather than the busyness and political divides of modern day. Historical fiction provides that little bit of distance to enhance our objectivity.
How did you develop your heroine Lilliana Swope and ten-year-old Celia Percy? Why did you decide to have a child’s point of view along with the others? What would Lilliana and Celia have to say about you?
I identify closely with both Lilliana and Celia, for different reasons and drew from my own life to develop their characters. It was important for me to tell the story from the viewpoint of different ages, to reveal how those characters viewed traumatic situations, and what they considered their personal responsibility toward others.
Like Lilliana, I ran away from an abusive marriage and oppressive church as a young woman. It took many years to work through the issues surrounding that and to find healing, to believe that God could really love me. Helping others in need (by opening the lending library and offering literacy help to the community, opening her home to the Percys, and doing what she could to rescue Ruby, a girl with similar problems to her own) was important on the path to Lilliana’s healing. Reaching out to help others in need has been a help to me, too.
Like Celia, I was the creative child with big ideas, a strong sense of social justice, and a determination to speak out against injustice no matter the consequences. I was the child that my mother didn’t know what to do with.
I think Lilliana and Celia would appreciate that I understand them and that I know their intentions are good and their hearts are generous, even if they don’t always make the wisest decisions.
Do your characters hijack the story or do you have full rein? Which characters would you be least and most likely to get along with?
Sometimes my characters hijack my stories. I never have full rein—and that’s the joy in watching them develop and grow. I love when they sprout wings and surprise me. I’d get along fine with all the characters you mentioned. The ones in the story that I’d have serious issues with are Lilliana’s husband, Gerald, her father, Ida May, and Ruby Lynne’s father and uncle.
In your “Note to the Reader” at the book’s end, you call attention to abuse of all kinds—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—especially in churches and marriages, even Christian ones. In Night Bird Calling, Lilliana endured much domestic abuse before she escapes from her husband. What led you to “champion the battle against oppression” (according to your website) in your fiction?
I grew up mostly in the South during years of the civil rights movement where I witnessed segregation, desegregation, racial oppression and abuse but also heroic stands against injustice and some hard-won changes. I learned that attitudes do not change just because laws change. Transformation of the heart is also needed. That is as true today as it was then.
As a young woman I ran away from an abusive marriage and an oppressive church. My journey toward emotional and spiritual healing took many years. I want women in similar situations to know that they are not alone, that God loves them so very dearly and that the condemnations of their oppressors do not come from Him.
I wrote Night Bird Calling not only for victims of abuse, but in the hope that readers might gain insight, sympathy and perhaps have empathy for those who’ve been abused or pushed down, that they might better understand and see creative ways they can help, ways they can be a voice for the voiceless or those needing someone to walk alongside them.
Each of my books in some way battles oppression. I believe we’re all created for a purpose and that our life experiences—the good and the bad—help develop our characters and guide our gifts to fulfill that purpose. Recognizing and battling oppression is what my life has taught me. Writing has been the gift to share that.
Some Christian publishers don’t care for novels that reflect the church poorly. So there’s a risk in having so-called Christian characters live hypocritical lives even while active in church rule. What kind of response do you get from readers for delving into these difficult places of abuse and oppression?
I wondered about that very thing as I wrote, but the result is that I’ve received an overwhelmingly earnest and positive response to this story and the issues it raises.
So many women have suffered church abuse at the hands of church leaders and domestic violence at the hands of husbands or fathers who claim to be Christian. They’ve felt unique, alone, afraid, condemned by their abusers and sometimes by church leaders and feared they were abandoned by God. Most fear no one would believe them if they reported their abuser, inside the church or outside the church.
Women have longed for someone to speak out, to name their pain, and to ask if God really loves and cares for them. The answer is a resounding YES, God loves and cares for them and He never condones abuse.
I’ve received more emails and messages in appreciation for this novel than any I’ve penned. I think that for some readers it’s been the opening of a window on a long-kept secret for which they’ve felt great pain and shame. The pain is certainly theirs, but the shame does not belong to them.
What unusual thing did you do or discover while researching for this story?
Much of my prior WWII writing has focused on foreign shores, but for this story I enjoyed researching the American homefront before and during WWII through books, internet research, archival film footage on the Great Depression, Jim Crow laws and their results, the history of lynching and the KKK, racism and the great migration, the work of Eleanor Roosevelt as well as histories of Wilkes and Surry Counties in NC, and the Appalachian home moonshining industry and its culture. I read about and visited lifesaving stations on the Outer Banks.
Legal sources were interviewed for information re. trusts, wills, and divorce proceedings in 1941. Newspaper archives for Wilkes County, NC were helpful. I interviewed some wonderful older people who had lived there during those years and pulled some real-life stories from them, my family and my own life, then enjoyed a trip to the North Carolina foothills and mountains, soaking up its music and a visit to the church and cemetery where some of my ancestors were buried.
For the Oswald and Biddy Chambers threads I found wonderful information in the biography, Mrs. Oswald Chambers, by Michelle Ule, and in Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God, by David McCasland, as well as pertinent passages in My Utmost for His Highest.
I was surprised to learn how close to civilian life the military in North Carolina practiced war games as they trained recruits. I can only imagine it was startling and perhaps frightening to those able to observe.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as an author?
Reading the Bible daily has been Number 1. In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon set my life and writing in motion. As for books or media on the craft of writing I’ve especially appreciated The Hero’s Two Journeys by Michael Hague; The Moral Premise, by Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D.; A Split in Time—How to Write Dual Timeline, Split Time, and Time-Split Fiction, by Melanie Dobson and Morgan Tarpley Smith; Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share examples of how one of your stories grew from an initial idea.
Stories usually come from a need the Lord presses on my heart—some current event that grieves my heart that I know grieves the heart of God. That grief usually includes battling against some form of oppression. I then look for a time in history that reflects the same issue.
That’s never difficult to find as history repeats itself with astonishing regularity. As I research the time period characters emerge and the plot develops. Sometimes characters emerge first—before research. I would say that my books are more character driven than plot driven, but most of all they are purpose driven.
Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Once I’ve understood the need or purpose for a book and identified the time period and setting, I do a lot of praying and begin research. Sometimes research includes travel and/or taking a particular course, either in person or online. It always includes lots of reading, personal interviews when possible, and immersing myself in the time period.
I write a synopsis and a few chapters to work my way into a story. Sometimes I outline the book in more detail, depending on the story and what I think I’ll need to keep me on track.
Once I begin writing in earnest, I make notes of further research needs and incorporate that. The length of time it takes me to write is different for every book, but from concept to finish it usually takes me somewhere between a year to 15 months. Seven months was my shortest time to write a book. Given family life, I’ve not been able to repeat that.
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author.
I’m excited about this year’s release, Ladies of the Lake. It’s quite a different story from any I’ve written, and I hope readers will enjoy it. It’s given me an opportunity to celebrate and explore the wonderful friendships and sisterhood among women as well as some fascinating episodes in Canadian history.
I’ve just started writing a new book themed by the parables in Luke 15. This, too, is something new for me, so I’m looking forward to exploring those themes through fiction.
You published your first novel at age fifty. Had you tried to write and publish a novel earlier? Or was this purposely a new direction you decided to take?
William Henry is a Fine Name was my first novel. I signed that contract on my fiftieth birthday though I’d worked on that novel for a number of years off and on. It was purposely a new direction. I’d written short stories, poetry, plays, essays, news and features for local newspapers, and had small pieces published in two books before that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Read the best books and the kinds of books you want to write. Enjoy praise from kindhearted loved ones but learn from valuable critique. Take time to study the craft and strengthen language and grammar skills. Gain experience through practice.
As you consider what to write (what genre or direction) ask what the Lord has placed in your hands. In what ways are you gifted? What are your opportunities now and what has your life experience taught you?
Consider all these things to see if there is a thread that has been built into your life indicating a direction for your writing. Remember that writing requires daily self-discipline but that while writing is important it is not the be all and end all of life. Live each day generously and deliberately as salt and light in this world and write purposefully. We walk this earth for such a short time—make each day and everything you write count.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
Do you know anybody who is a victim of domestic abuse? According to Psychology Today, domestic violence occurs when a person consistently aims to control their partner through physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. The United States Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain control over another intimate partner.”
NOTE: Not all abuse is physical or sexual. Emotional abuse, through blaming and manipulating, is prevalent as well, even among Christians and church-goers.
Author Karolyn Dekker writes about women and their abusive spouses for Focus Ministries and the women’s magazine Just Between Us. Pass this along to someone who needs the support to end abuse.
- Behind Closed Doors
- Don’t Hold Out for a Disney Ending
- Abuse . . . On the Mission Field?
- Helping Those Trapped in Abuse
If you like Southern Appalachian fiction or stories about family secrets, you might enjoy my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden. Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968, the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
All That Is Hidden awards:
- Winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award
- Semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest
I invite you to join my monthly newsletter for writing updates, freebies, and giveaways. Sign up and I’ll send you a free gift: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com
Cathy Gohlke Bio:
Bestselling, Christy Hall of Fame, and Carol and INSPY Award-winning author, Cathy Gohlke writes novels steeped with inspirational lessons, speaking of world and life events through the lens of history. She champions the battle against oppression, celebrating the freedom found only in Christ. When not traveling to historic sites for research, she and her husband of 40 years, Dan, divide their time between Northern Virginia and the Jersey Shore, enjoying time with their grown children and grandchildren. Visit her website at www.cathygohlke.com, and find her on Facebook at CathyGohlkeBooks; on Bookbub (@ CathyGohlke); and on YouTube, where you can subscribe to Book Gems with Cathy Gohlke for short videos of book recommendations.
Join me next time for a visit with author Erin Bartels.
Meanwhile, have you read Night Bird Calling or any others by Cathy Gohlke? What stories have you read about domestic abuse or the KKK? Answer in the comments below.
Sign up for my monthly newsletter to receive tips, recipes, freebies, giveaways, and the prequel for All That Is Hidden: www.StandoutStoriesNewsletter.com