Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

A Book for All Ages: "William Henry Is a Fine Name"

  • Paula Moldenhauer Contributing Writer
  • 2007 27 Mar
A Book for All Ages:  "William Henry Is a Fine Name"

"William Henry Is a Fine Name" (Moody Publishers) is one of those rare books that transcends the age of the reader. Though the author, Cathy Gohlke, wrote it as youth fiction, her publisher viewed it as a coming-of-age story strong enough to be read and enjoyed by both adults and youth and labeled the novel as historical fiction.

The book chronicles the life of a 13-year-old boy, Robert, torn between two worlds in 1859. Robert is raised in the south on a plantation run by abolitionists who've freed their former slaves and now share the earnings of the plantation with them. Robert’s best friend, William Henry, is a free black boy. However, Robert's mother is the daughter of a rich slave owner who's hoping to groom Robert to take over his plantation. The two worlds collide and Robert must decide whether to become a part of the Underground Railroad, like his father, or to step into the wealth and ease his grandfather offers.
The book is beautifully descriptive with a well-crafted story line. A wonderful choice for our family read aloud time, both my children and I were engrossed in the drama of this novel. But the author did more than craft a great story with well-chosen words, she offered her readers big ideas to process and I feel both my children and I grew as we experienced this book together.
Cathy, what prompted you to write "William Henry Is a Fine Name"?
From the moment in childhood that I learned of the Underground Railroad I have been fascinated and inspired by those daring races to freedom and by the courageous runners, conductors, and stationmasters who risked their lives to help one another.  I’ve wondered if I could so courageously act upon such conviction.  Writing this book helped me explore that.

Did a particular passion drive you as you wrote?
My passion is to bless young people, to let them know they are not powerless, not alone, that they, too, can effect change in their own spheres by the grace of God, and that there are real life answers in the Bible for all of us.  Our questions may change through the years, but God's answers and the principles that lead to life are for all generations.

What questions have you had that were answered by these principles?
There are so many over my lifetime.  Questions like:  What does God want of me? How do I honor Him in my life? How can I live a Christian life in school, at home, at work, at church, and in the world when people around me look down on or ridicule that?  How do I treat someone who looks or believes differently than I?  If I don’t like my situation or if it is hurtful what can I do to change it?  What if changing my situation hurts someone else?  Is there a way to heal both?  Does God call us to live our Christian life in solitude or community?  How far does that community extend?  What if helping one person hurts another?

Your book is full of wonderful themes, themes of courage, friendship, loyalty, and justice. What one theme do you think is most important in this work and how do you hope it might impact a reader?
Love – love for God and love for neighbor.  That love motivates us to live courageously, intentionally, to be willing to sacrifice to help others. I hope this book will stimulate readers to step up and receive the abundant relationship God offers, then look people they meet each day in the eye, and care for, value, and protect them as much as they care for, value, and protect themselves.

Is there something in your own life that fuels a passion for that theme? Would you be willing to share a personal experience along these lines?
Many life events fuel my passion for this theme.  Here is one.  I grew up in the south during years of the Civil Rights movement.  Laws changed more quickly than attitudes.

I remember the day the church at the end of our street installed a basketball hoop and net in their parking lot.  It was a grand day for the kids in the neighborhood.  We rushed through dinner and ran to the church, dribbling our basketball and shooting hoops until dark.  None of us were very good players, but it was great fun. 

Pretty soon an African American boy who lived across the street and beyond the field joined us.  Joe (not his real name) was a great basketball player!  He’d rarely miss a shot and taught us what he knew.  That his skin was black made no difference to us.  We were excited to have a new friend, were curious about his life beyond the field – it looked like a farm from far away – and of course, we all wanted him on our team.

After the third night my mother received a phone call from a “concerned parent” who lived near the church.  She’d seen my mother’s “white daughter” playing with “that colored boy” and wanted to advise her.  She was certain my mother would never allow such a thing if she had knowledge of it.  My mother assured her we were all just playing basketball, but the woman made our game sound dirty, and told my mother that if she didn’t call a stop to it her children would not be allowed to play with my brother or me.  The woman was certain the other mothers in the neighborhood would feel the same. 

That was the last night of basketball in the church parking lot for a long time – the last night I ever played there.  I was livid, my brother was livid, and our mother distraught – caught in the middle.  We all knew it was unjust, unfair and small-minded.  Even as children, we understood that.

The few times I saw Joe later, before he moved away, he never raised his eyes to mine. He acted as though he didn’t know me.  For three glorious nights we’d all been innocents and Joe had had a place to shine and share his gifts among new friends.  That was ripped away from him as surely as if he’d been yanked on a chain.  We lost so much more than basketball that night.

I’ve often wondered if Joe remembers that time, or if it was just one in such a long line of injustices that he’s forgotten.  I’ve always wished I could have done something better in that situation.  Now, by God’s grace, I can.

I love the way you weave amazing description and beautiful writing into a story with lots of drama and action. My boys were mesmerized by the action. I was mesmerized by the cadence of your words. How did you do it?
You are so generous, Paula.  I love the beauty of language and celebrate that in the things I read – poetry and prose.  I love the rhythm of words and the way they fit together. Reading aloud and performing my work helps tremendously.  I love a good story.  I remember being young and exploring old houses, searching dead tree stumps, scratching at the base of gravestones, desperately wishing an exciting mystery might pop up for me to solve.  Writing provides just the opportunity for that sort of drama and action.  It’s great fun to write something, then whistle, and shout, “Whoa!  That could’ve happened!”

What was your favorite scene in this book and why?
Ouch.  That feels a little like choosing one child over another.  I especially love the scenes where William Henry and Robert are together.  My favorites among those include the opening scene at the fishing hole, where they’ve escaped their mothers and outwitted Jake Tulley all in one fine day; the time they skunk the Tulley’s dogs so the dogs can’t track Robert’s father, Mr. Heath or the slaves they are helping to escape; the urgent meeting late one night on the porch when William Henry returns Robert’s lost watch, entrusts Robert with the significance of his name, and says more than his friend can understand at the time.

Who is your favorite character in this book and why?
William Henry.  It seems William Henry was born knowing what is important in life.  He “inhaled” reading.  He learned through every experience and put all of that to the best use he knew.  He stood by those he loved and reached out to those in need.  He did not second-guess his decisions once he set his feet on a path.  I loved his audacity and decisive nature.  That does not mean I agreed with all of his decisions – but, like thirteen-year-old Robert, I loved and admired him.

My third grader cried at one point as I read the book to the children and didn’t want to continue with the story because it made him sad. (We were at a particularly difficult point where the slaves were severely mistreated.) We worked through the painful spot and finished the novel, which is very redemptive. Do you have advice for parents as they discuss the hard issues of this book?
Hold your children close.  Mourn loss with them.  Mourning a character or situation in a book helps children understand that it is okay to cry, that grief is normal, and that life does go on, even after bad things happen.  Let them know that the bad things people have done to each other are not right and should never be repeated.  Tell them that by knowing these things they can decide, like Robert, how and when to take their own stand for what is right and good and true, and how to keep going when life is very hard.  Help children recognize unfair, unjust treatment in the world they live in.  Help them understand how they, even in their youth, can respond to that.  Talk about the people who helped Robert, the people he could trust and why they were trustworthy.  Talk about trustworthy people in your child’s life, and why you, or they, believe them trustworthy.

What one message would you like to leave with your readers?
We are not victims in life.  We each have the opportunity to make choices about what we believe and how we act upon those beliefs. 

A homeschooling mother of four, Paula Moldenhauer is passionate about God's grace. Published over 300 times, she’s recently released two novels: Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal and Postmark: Christmas. Her website offers homeschooling and parenting articles, devotionals, and information about her books.  Contact Paula: