Band of SistersBand of Sisters
Cathy Gohlke
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Maureen O'Reilly and her younger sister flee Ireland in hope of claiming the life promised to their father over twenty years before. After surviving the rigors of Ellis Island, Maureen learns that their benefactor, Colonel Wakefield, has died. His family, refusing to own his Civil War debt, casts her out. Alone, impoverished, and in danger of deportation, Maureen connives to obtain employment in a prominent department store. But she soon discovers that the elegant facade hides a secret that threatens every vulnerable woman in the city.

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cathy GohlkeCathy Gohlke is the two-time Christy Award–winning author of the critically acclaimed novels Promise Me This, William Henry Is a Fine Name, and I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires, which also won the American Christian Fiction Writers' Book of the Year Award and was listed by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2008.  Cathy has worked as a school librarian, drama director, and director of children's and education ministries. When not traipsing the hills and dales of historic sites, she, her husband, and their dog, Reilly, make their home in Maryland.

Favorite Bible verse: Jeremiah 29: 11-13- “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”


 Our Interview with Cathy Gohlke


Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m wife to Dan (30 years), and mother to two grown children—Elisabeth (married to Tim) and Daniel (currently in Thailand). I love reading, writing, research, travel, campfires and bike rides on flat roads on sunny days. I love investigating historical sites, old attics, graveyards, and places that time forgot. I love spending time with family and friends, and in hands on ministry. I love worshipping my God and King—privately and corporately—and living my life as a song of praise to Him.

What is your favorite Bible verse?

Jeremiah 29: 11-13- “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”—These verses speak to me of hope, assure me of God’s love and good intentions toward me, and give me a road map to finding Him. I love that!

How did you get started writing Christian fiction?

I began writing my first novel as a good moral story about slavery and the Underground Railroad, a story that would encourage young people to stand up for what they knew was right, regardless of peer or family pressure.

But by the end of the first chapter, Robert (main character) was struggling to understand the disconnect between a loving God who would pursue one lone lost lamb intent on returning it to the fold, and a God who condoned slavery, as the preacher in his church claimed.  Robert’s pursuit for understanding, and his resulting decision regarding slavery, dictated the book. The quest to understand what God loves and what grieves His heart, and to break the chains that bind us—spiritually, mentally, physically—is foundational to my writing and my life. It made Christian fiction a perfect fit.

What inspired your interest in writing the Band of Sisters?

Band of Sisters was born of a desire to end modern-day slavery, and most of all to ask the question, “What can I do to help in a need so desperate?”

How did you come up with the concept for the Band of Sisters?

I’d intended to write a historical novel about human trafficking, beginning with female immigrants who were accosted as they came through Castle Gardens in the late 1800s, and of the burgeoning settlement house movement that helped them. The story of Alma Mathews—a feisty lady rescuer—inspired me. But my editor suggested I set the story later, through Ellis Island. As I researched that possibility I found that the problem of human trafficking was as prevalent as ever during that era—termed “white slavery.”


So, after researching Ellis Island and NYC, I had a setting, but no real story—until I picked up a book that has greatly influenced my life—an age-old friend, In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon. Sheldon first coined and made popular the question, “What would Jesus do?” And so I asked, “What would Jesus do about human trafficking?” As my characters and I discovered those answers together, the story was born.

Have you visited Ellis Island?

Yes, my husband and I visited Ellis Island together early in my research for this book. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it. Stories spring from everywhere!

How much of the Band of Sisters is factual?

Band of Sisters and its characters comprise a work of fiction, but the circumstances portrayed for susceptible immigrant women traveling alone and entering the U.S. through Ellis Island were real. “White slavery” was such a concern that it led to the passing of the Mann Act in 1910. The corruption of politicians, police, etc., is well documented.

Immigrant aid societies and similar organizations provided some help to immigrant women. Immigrants who could not speak English were at the greatest disadvantage and were most susceptible. There really was a shirtwaist factory workers strike in those years, which highlighted the desperate need of women to make a living wage in safe circumstances. The burning of the Triangle Waist Factory and the public funerals are accurately portrayed.

How closely is the Band of Sisters based on your life experiences?

I know what it is to doubt God’s love—to believe that He simply couldn’t love the real me. So I understand Maureen’s heart, and the journey she makes to the heart of God—which was there for her all along, simply waiting and drawing her to Him.

My life was forever changed by the question Charles Sheldon asked, “What would Jesus do?” Challenging readers in a new generation with that question is one of the greatest gifts I can give.

How long did the Band of Sisters take you to complete?

I began researching in February and writing in March. I turned in the completed manuscript the end of September—seven months of writing. I’ve never written a book that fast, and didn’t believe I could!

Do you have a favorite character in the Band of Sisters? Why?

Maybe Three:
I love good, kind Mrs. Melkford—she reminds me of my grandmother and the grandmother I’d like to be someday.
I best understand Maureen and her desire to be loved by the Lord.
I relate to Olivia, who wants to make her life count. I understand stepping out of one’s comfort zone, asking, “What would Jesus do?” and acting upon that.


How much research did the Band of Sisters take?

Research was extensive but accessible. I made two trips to Manhattan and the Tenement Museum, and one each to Brooklyn, Harlem, Long Island, and Ellis Island. I read numerous historical nonfiction books and maps, newspapers, archives, watched documentaries, and interviewed people for their family stories. I focused on immigration, Irish families and culture, prostitution and human trafficking, women in 1910-1911 NYC, the Triangle Waist Factory fire, tenements, the Bowery, immigrant aid societies, Tammany Hall, the court system and how they treated women, corruption in police, the Statue of Liberty and life in the early 20th century.

What was the most interesting tidbit that you learned while writing the Band of Sisters?

It was fascinating to learn the lengths that politicians and business owners went to undermine women. I’d read about the plights of suffragettes, but the court cases of women shirtwaist factory strikers and the intentional cruelty toward them made me sad and angry. Women were sexually harassed, threatened, sometimes beaten and worse, fired, and humiliated. Having no job could mean deportation and/or eviction and starvation. Women sometimes felt tempted or forced into prostitution to survive or to save their families.

On more than one occasion when shirtwaist workers peacefully demonstrated with picketing signs for higher wages, brothel workers were trucked in to walk beside them. The entire group was arrested (including peaceful strikers) as immoral women and sentenced. Even wealthy women who tried to support the strikers were labeled disparagingly as “the mink brigade.” I greatly admire all these determined pioneers of workers’ and women’s rights.

What are some of the challenges you face as an author?

Finding a balance between time spent researching and writing books, and time spent writing articles, blogs, public speaking, etc., is a challenge for me. Balancing my writing life with my family life may be my greatest challenge.

What aspects of being a writer do you enjoy the most?

I love research and travel. Once I get the bones of my story into the computer, I love rewriting and editing.

What is your writing style? (Do you outline? Write “by-the-seat-of-your-pants? Or somewhere in-between?)

I think of myself as an “outliner by force,” but I’ve learned that an outline is truly helpful in maintaining a moral premise and in keeping my story on track. I leave plenty of room for organic development, and that makes my “seat-of-the-pants” heart sing.

Do your characters begin to take on a life of their own as you write?

Always! New characters even waltz into my computer without invitation or permission! I just let them come and have their way until I understand why they’ve intruded. I feel as though I’m recording the story of my characters rather than creating it. I get to know them well—their longings, their personal challenges, their dreams and hearts’ desires. I even overhear their prayers. When they choose their responses to life I’m not surprised—it’s simply who they are. I wouldn’t try to change them—they’re like real people to me.


What other new projects do you have on the horizon?  

I’ve just started a new novel:
It is 1939 in the Alpine village of Oberammergau, Germany--scene of the world's longest running Passion Play.
Hitler has just invaded Poland, and unleashed his euthanasia program across Germany, determined to rid the Reich and ultimately the world of "life unworthy of life."
Rachel Kramer, adopted daughter of a Long Island scientist with strong connections to Germany, discovers that she was separated from her twin sister at birth as part of a nature vs. nurture experiment.  Rachel and the man who loves her risk everything to find her sister and save a deaf child targeted by the SS.  But they are not alone-villagers of the Passion Play embrace the message of their script—one way or another . . .
Characters confront questions: "Is every life worthy?" and "What is my responsibility toward others?"
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his book, "The Cost of Discipleship," illuminates those answers.

What message would you like your readers to take from the Band of Sisters?

What would Jesus do in my life, right here, right now—and what would He have me do about human trafficking?

None of us can solve the problem of modern-day slavery alone.  None of us can do everything.  But we can each do something, and together we can raise awareness and implement changes that chip away at the dark mountain.  Together, we can create a symphony for change.  For a list of organizations already helping, please visit my website’s resource page at

What is your greatest achievement?

Raising my children—I thank God for them everyday, for the people they’ve become and the difference they are making in the world, and for the privilege of being their mother.

What is your goal or mission as a writer?

My goal is to draw readers closer to the heart of God, to serve as a stepping-stone for them on their journey toward an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

To that end, I write, putting into perspective the struggles of humanity and of my own—past and present—to see the world as God sees it, as He redeems it by pursuing and claiming one heart at a time. I want to know what gives Him joy, what breaks His heart—those are the stories that matter, the stories that bring me continually closer to Him, and I hope act as a springboard for readers.

What do you do to get away from it all?

I love to sit in a comfy chair outside, lean back, and stare up into the treetops.  It’s a great place to talk with God and soak up His sunshine. 

I also love to hop the train to D.C. and visit my grown daughter for lunch.   The train ride itself is freeing—almost like stepping into time travel.  Good food and time with my precious daughter crowns the day.  Often, by the time I step off the train near home, new plot twists are brewing.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you so much for having me today!  God’s blessings for you and all your readers!


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