This reading group guide for Promise to Cherish includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Byler Younts. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Christine Freeman is a nurse at Hudson River State Hospital in the mid 1940s, during which the effects of World War II rage on. She has lost both of her brothers to the war and works tirelessly, serving patients at the ward. Worlds collide when conscientious objector Eli Brenneman comes to work at the hospital. Despite, and even in the midst of, differences, Christine and Eli begin to develop a friendship.
Christine becomes pregnant when things with her crush, Jack, go too far. Now, as an unwed soon-to-be mother, she must decide what is best for her and the baby she shamefully carries. Uncertain of her future, she joins Eli to find refuge in his Amish community until she can decide what is next. But with the passing of each week and her growing belly, she cannot ignore her growing feelings for Eli.
With the birth of Christine’s baby boy, Eli confesses his love to Christine and begs her to stay. Jack too comes to visit, pleading with Christine to win her back. She must make a choice. Though she loves Eli, how can she remain in a culture and town so different from her own? How can she marry an Amish man and ignore the promise of a future together that Jack has now made to her? In Promise to Cherish
, the conflict of World War II brings two people together to wage their own costly battle for love and discovery of self. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Eli views the opportunity to join the Civilian Public Service camp for conscientious objectors as a way out of his hometown. He was not seeking “to make a change” or to “leave the Amish for good, but he did need to get away, even if just for a short spell of time” (p. 2). Can you relate to this desire to escape your present circumstances, but not out of a desire to change? What were your primary reasons for seeking time away? What change(s) did you experience during this time away or break from routine, if any?
2. Christine serves her family for years by working at Hudson River State Hospital. She did not want to work there, but “her family needed her to work . . . their very survival depended on it” (p. 8). Knowing that her mother made ends meet once Christine left, do you believe it was right for Christine’s family to depend on her the way that they did? What reasons, emotional or financial, did Margie have for depending on Christine’s income?
3. The reader is privy to Eli’s thoughts on his first day at Hudson River State Hospital. “He’d never been a crying man, but there was something so desperately sad about the men in this room” (p. 46). What is revealed about his character here and in the way he interacts with Wally later?
4. In chapter 5, Christine and Eli argue over a conscientious objector’s position toward war. Christine argues that wrongs should be righted and freedoms defended. Eli argues that the cost of war is too high, basing his beliefs on Christ’s example to seek peace and love one’s enemies. What do you think? Do you think Eli’s beliefs would have been the same had he experienced the loss of loved ones as a result of war as Christine did? Explain.
5. Jack tells Christine, “You wanted this to happen and now you’re just pretending it’s entirely my fault so you don’t have to take any of the blame” (p. 91). Christine believes it: “She’d let his hands roam. . . . The only person she could blame for this awful night was herself” (p. 95). What do you think about the situation? In your opinion, was Christine raped? Who do you hold responsible?
6. Eli receives a phone call one day notifying him that his sibling’s house burned down. His younger brother tells him “Everybody sure wants you home . . . because we need you” (p. 103). Based on this statement, were you surprised by the type of welcome and treatment Eli received once he returned home? Apart from Christine’s joining him, what other reasons do you think the family had for treating Eli the way they did? Describe how you would feel if you were one of his family members.
7. Margie’s response to her daughter’s pregnancy likely depicts the social norms of America in the mid 1940s. She holds Christine responsible for leading Jack on and provides an immediate solution for the pregnancy: Christine will either have Jack marry her or she will go to an unwed girls’ home. How do present-day norms influence your judgment of Margie, if at all? Do you think Margie’s response toward her unwed, pregnant daughter resonates in today’s society? If so, in what ways?
8. Nurse Phancock is the first person to tell Christine her situation with Jack is not her fault. She bases this comment on her understanding of scripture and concludes that “nowhere in the Bible” does it say “that men can’t control themselves. It does say that a man should respect a woman” (p. 148). How does scripture inform your beliefs and decisions? How do you believe Christine’s relationship with God impacted her decisions in the weeks surrounding the situation with Jack?
9. The following comments about sin are made by women at church one Sunday: “sins in your youth will punish you later in life” and “every sin has a consequence” (p. 221). Aunt Annie’s response indicates her adamant disagreement when she asks them what her sin was since she lost all three of her babies. How does her background minister to Christine? To what extent do you agree with the comments made by these women? What informs your belief?
10. Aunt Annie recounts the ways that Amish people have been judged for their ways. Specifically, she speaks to the way they have separated themselves “from the world because it’s the best way we know to be close to God” (p. 245). Regardless of whether you agree with their conscientious objector position, what benefits can you see in this level of separation? What negative consequences can you see in it?
11. Eli informally proposes to Christine once she has her baby, Peter. “I want to be your husband and Peter’s father” (p. 300). She imagines the Amish way and declines his offer with the statement that “this isn’t my real life.” Identify the reasons Christine may have still felt this way, declining the gift of a man she loved in a community that she had come to enjoy.
12. When Eli is frustrated for the way the hospital patients and staff view him for being a conscientious objector, his friend DeWayne responds with the following: “If you know who you are, you can’t ever really lose yourself. You might stray a little from time to time, but you don’t lose yourself—unless you just don’t know who you are” (p. 49). How does this statement play itself out in both Eli’s and Christine’s lives throughout the novel? How have you seen the truth of this in your own life?
13. How does Matilda symbolize the person Eli was before he left the Amish community?
14. Discuss how the brother in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) is similar to Mark.
15. Describe how the theme of God’s redemption characterizes Christine’s and Eli’s journeys. Enhance Your Book Club
1. Hudson River State Hospital faced hardship. Workers were few and their supplies and funding were low. Additionally, support was little: families did not visit their patients and the town wanted little to do with the institution. Consider the institutions or nonprofits in your area that receive little support. Decide how your group could meet one of their needs and develop a plan of action to do so.
2. Homes for unwed mothers were a national trend from the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1970s, when use began to decline. Research and discuss the historic and present-day types of these institutions. Be sure to elaborate on both their positive and negative influence. For an in-depth account, read The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade
by Ann Fessler.
3. As Aunt Annie says, the Amish have chosen to separate themselves “from the world because it’s the best way we know to be close to God”
(p. 245). This month choose one way you can separate yourself more from “the world” in order to be closer to God. Share it with the group and ask for accountability.
4. Eli prays the following: “Lord, give me the wisdom and patience You promise in James. The faith you show in Hebrews. Show me how to abide like in John fifteen. Help me love like First Corinthians thirteen” (p. 285). Select one of the passages that Eli may have been referring to and read it aloud. Share with the group what those verses mean to you in this season of your life. Commit the scripture verse(s) to memory.
James 1:5–6 “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”
Hebrews 11:1, 6 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. . . . And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
John 15:4 “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
1 Corinthians 13:4–8 “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
5. Author Elizabeth Byler Younts has also written an Amish memoir titled Seasons: A Real Story of an Amish Girl
. This is a story of her grandmother Lydia Lee Coblentz, who grew up in an impoverished American family through the Great Depression. Read this memoir and discuss how this book differs from Promise to Cherish
. A Conversation with Elizabeth Byler Younts 1. Have you always wanted to write?
I’m told that even as a child as young as three I was writing my stories in small notebooks before bedtime. My mom was not surprised at all when around eleven I started talking about becoming a writer. Praise the Lord she and my dad nurtured my love of writing and books. 2. Describe your favorite writing location or room.
I just moved from the south to the north and into a new house. I love my house. It’s not perfect—but it has the best sense of home. I usually write either in our homeschool room in the basement near the windows or next to the fireplace that opens up into the great room and kitchen. 3. How do your two young daughters influence your writing? Are there specific lessons in the Amish culture that you hope they learn?
As I write about the Amish way of life I long for the slower lifestyle. I wrote a blog post about a vintage lifestyle and how captivating it is to think about—though there are realities of vintage living that has its disadvantages, I understand. But I don’t want my children to be addicts to technology and require constant, entertaining stimulation. The best way to do this is through the example of my husband and myself and accessibility. I don’t do this perfectly and pray for better consistency.
My husband and I strive to provide our girls with the best possible childhood that resembles the best part of our own. Quality time is important to us, and we like simple, home-cooked meals, and healthy conversation around the table. We have a lot of time together with homeschooling, and we are planning a garden this year. We believe it’s important to be a part of a community of people whom you can care and pray for and who do the same for you. Our faith is built on the Bible. We teach our children that everyone needs a Savior—no one is perfect. Accepting the gift of Christ’s sacrifice allows the Bible to unfold with the most amazing wisdom. I pray my daughters learn that they have to work hard for what they want and need—real living does not come through being spoon-fed. 4. It seems your own Daudy was an inspiration in writing this book. He was a conscientious objector in World War II and worked at a mental hospital during that time. How were his stories passed down to you? At what stage in your life did his service truly impact you and draw you in with a desire to learn more?
Yes, my daudy
, Freeman Coblentz, has definitely inspired this book. I can’t remember learning his stories; I feel like I’ve always known them. I used to be bothered by the fact that he was never recognized for serving in the way he knew how to serve. Now, with this book I can honor his service in a way that I think would’ve pleased him if he were still alive. I feel like I understand his stance so much better now and believe very strongly that our country is better for having conscientious objectors who, when given the chance, will help the country in a way that does not disrupt their faith. After World War II there was also a movement of pacifists who went overseas to help those who lost so much during the war. Some went right from the CPS to this work. While my daudy
did not participate in this, I am so thankful for the pacifist movement that was willing to prove its beliefs through real action.
This story also blossomed through the experience of one of my first cousins. He fell in love with a young woman outside the Amish faith. You’ll be happy to know they married also and have a house full of beautiful children. She embraced her new life because of her love for my cousin. 5. The story of Promise to Cherish is steeped in the history of World War II. What was your research process like? What resources were particularly helpful in studying the culture of unwed mothers and conscientious objectors?
Researching as many details as possible was very important to me. There wasn’t a specific website I used for unwed mothers but doing research online makes this process accessible. I went to www.civilianpublicservice.org for the CPS and the mental hospitals research. This was where I began the research for this entire series. I also used several books: The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service
by Albert N. Keim, Service for Peace
by Melvin Gingrich, Acts of Conscience
by Steven J. Taylor, and Detour . . . Main Highway: Our CPS Stories
by the College of Mennonite Church. These books were incredibly helpful. Promise to Cherish
does not even touch the tip of the iceberg with how life was in the institutions or the CPS wide. It would bring many to tears. The men and women who worked in these institutions during those years when it was especially difficult, and I don’t just mean the CPS workers, deserve medals. 6. In your Letter to the Reader, you note that you are a “proud military wife with an ancestral line of Amish conscientious objectors.” What are a few things you respect about both of these groups of people?
I’m so proud of our military. I believe a current statistic is that only about 1 percent of Americans will serve in the military in active duty. During World War II the percentage was closer to 9 percent. There are really so few people who fight for the freedoms of the 99 percent. Truly, hats off. The sacrifices that come with that responsibility are many—the greatest being putting your life on the line knowing your family could lose you. My husband is now in the Air National Guard after eleven years in active duty, and I’m as proud of him as I ever was. I stand by the hard work that our military does and their committed and loyal spouses and their “brats” who have to take on every new home, job, and school changes, and make new friends every few years and so much more with courage and grace. This is not an easy way to live, though it can be very rewarding.
As I look back at my ancestry and the lineup of nonresistant men and women, I’m also proud. I respect that they followed through with their beliefs and didn’t just do what was popular or acceptable. In World War II the pacifists were hated and despised yet they stood for their right to be a C.O. Consider how difficult this would’ve been for them. I’m proud of my present and my ancestry because in both I see a resolve to follow one’s conscience, no matter how difficult. Both require a strong-willed spirit and perseverance. 7. The reader follows both Christine and Eli on a spiritual journey. With which character can you relate the most, speaking in terms of your own spiritual journey? Why?
I think maybe pieces of both. Christine and Eli, in different ways, saw their spiritual value in how people perceived them. This is not where our value lies. No matter how much good people see in you or if you are someone easily judged for wrongs . . . your value comes from God. This is such a hard concept. This affects not just how we view ourselves but how we make friends and our sense of belonging.
I am constantly reminding myself that what truly matters are God’s wondrous thoughts toward me. I fail so often but God reminds me that He knows the number of the hairs on my head, that He knit me in my mother’s womb before the world was set in motion, and that He would’ve sent Jesus to die even if I was the only person who needed a Savior. My life has value to the Lord and He cherishes me. Ultimately, this is what Christine and Eli needed to learn. They are worth loving and cherishing no matter the mistakes they have made or the opinions of others. 8. Who is your least favorite character in Promise to Cherish? Why?
I really enjoyed these characters. I had several that could make this list but because I see redemption in them, even Jack, I think my least favorite would have to be Nurse Minton. My reason for this is because she let her circumstances make her jaded and harsh. She couldn’t see the humanity that was within the walls of the hospital anymore. The years of hard, thankless work had crushed her spirit. In writing that, however, it makes me sad for her and I wonder what her story was.
I also didn’t like Bucket, a very minor character, at all. I believe the vast majority of our heroic World War II soldiers would’ve disapproved of how he belittled Eli. 9. The reader is challenged to consider how World War II demanded change from the lives of conscientious objectors. Their financial climate was altered. Expectations were redefined. Loved ones spent an indefinite amount of time waiting on their conscientious objectors to return home. And when these individuals did return, they themselves were different. What do you hope the reader gains by considering how conscientious objectors sacrificed for the war as well?
All I can truly hope for readers to gain is what I’ve gained myself. It’s important to see a new and untold perspective and that everyone has a story to share. I’m learning not to condemn the decision not to fight but to be thankful we are in a country that allows for personal freedoms with regards to faith and conscience. Their sacrifices were different from soldiers—true, but they still sacrificed. Just because it wasn’t dangerous or didn’t cost their lives doesn’t mean it’s a sacrifice that should be forgotten. 10. With Promise to Cherish now complete, what are your plans for future writing?
I am currently writing the third book in the series. It is tentatively titled Promise to Keep
. Esther Detweiler was brought up knowing too much about abandonment and broken promises. Through a fear of rejection and an independent streak she has rejected the concept of love and marriage. When Esther is asked to care for a little motherless English girl while her father, Joe, goes off to the Pacific in World War II, Esther’s life changes. The real complications start, however, when Joe returns from war four years later.
Once this book is finished I hope to write many more stories that challenge our thinking and provide readers with an ear to the past.