Not even a week after 11-year-old Roz and her family move from Minneapolis into their new home in Mills River, Illinois, do they find Tillie Monroe, the property’s former owner, comfortably enthroned in a lawn chair on their front porch, reading their morning paper. The feisty 70-year-old is determined she will die in the house she helped her husband build despite the protest of her sons. Tillie soon inveigles her way into the family, which proves to be a good thing since she is there to provide the adult supervision and house-help that Mom needs so that she can go back to work now that Dad of the drunken sprees and scary driving is no longer with them.
A new friend, Mara, gives Roz just the outlet she needs to express her confused feelings about leaving behind the father whom she loves despite his faults. The appearance in her school desk of the Sugar Daddies he always bought for her puts her on high alert. Maybe the man she has momentarily glimpsed here and there, the one wearing the fishing hat just like her dad’s, is her dad.
In Promises to Keep, Ann Tatlock’s latest novel, we have a tale of a child’s longing for family. Tatlock spins out this Vietnam war-era story in a plot that is riddled with questions, dreams, schemes, secrets, and lies – all evidences of a little girl’s yearning and determination. Will she get her daddy back? Or did Mom know what she was doing when she tore them apart?
Roz (the first-person narrator), Mara and Tillie are the characters we come to know the best. They are easy to like and be with. I especially enjoyed senior Tillie’s homespun wisdom, motherly heart, and spunk. Roz’s dad Allan is the most mysterious of the characters. His dark, unpredictable personality overshadows the entire tale giving it the flavor of danger.
Tatlock explores family relationships of various kinds as her characters respond to issues of alcoholism, spousal battering, dealing with lost or missing fathers, grappling with the question what is the role of a father anyway, and responding to a new male “friend” in Mom’s life. Faith in God and prayer are themes that character Millie most often takes up. Though the Christian worldview foundations the whole story, the book is not preachy.
The story’s vocabulary is simple – the point of view teller is an 11-year-old, after all – but the storytelling is strong with events unfolding in ways that build suspense. Though the book is categorized as Contemporary Fiction, it may also be suitable for some younger readers (a few of Roz and Mara’s escapades reminded me of Anne and Diana’s shenanigans in Anne of Green Gables). The paperback edition I read also contained discussion questions following the story, which would make it a good choice for book clubs.
I frankly found the book a bit slow at the beginning. And there were times I felt impatient with being in the head of a rather unexceptional 11-year-old. However, midway through, the book got stickier for me, and by the last quarter it was hard to put down.
All in all, Promises to Keep is an entertaining and heart-rending story of a little girl and her family under stress. The happy ending sends a note of hope to other families struggling with betrayals, questions, secrets, lies, and broken promises.