Eleven-year-old Roz (Rosalind) Anthony and her family have just moved to Mills River, Illinois, to escape an abusive situation. Only days after settling into their new home, they are surprised to find the previous owner, Tillie Monroe, on their front porch reading the newspaper. Though her sons have sold the house and sent her to a facility for the aged, she is determined to die in the place she lived her life, and somehow manages to find her way “home” day after day. Feeling sympathy for the elderly woman, Roz’s mother allows Tillie to move back in. Mara Nightingale becomes Roz’s first friend in Mills River. In spite of their many differences, the girls discover they have something in common that binds them together–both are hiding secrets. So they make a promise–“cross my heart and hope to die”–never to tell anyone else.
Quick Review: Promises to Keep is a beautifully written, satisfying story which illustrates the proverb “not everything that looks good is good.”
Promises to Keep is written in the first person from the perspective of Rosalind Anthony, remembering the events of her first months in Mills River when she was eleven years old. The first character we are introduced to on page one is Tillie Monroe, a powerhouse of a woman who decides to move back into her house after a stint in the nursing home so that she can die there––despite the fact that the house has been sold to Roz’s mother. Tillie is my favorite character and the moral anchor of the story. She’s the one with the faith, wisdom, and fearlessness which bolsters Roz’s broken family and ultimately impacts their future.
Once in a while you read a novel with a character or characters who resonate with you in a special way. They become alive and you feel a deep connection to them. For me, Promises to Keep was not one of those books. While I think the characters are very well drawn and developed, but I didn’t really feel any special kinship with them. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, in no small part because of the quality writing and theme of race relations which was woven into the story.
I think the greatest strength of the novel is the high caliber writing. There were no places where the dialogue felt forced, or descriptions too tedious. Talock writes in Roz’s voice as an elderly woman remembering her childhood. Using this vantage point, it’s important to use adult language that is simple enough to capture the perspective of a child, but not so simple that it sounds as if a child is actually speaking. Talock struck the perfect balance between the two, and the whole of the writing––the nuts and bolts of fitting words and sentences together––is very well done, giving Promises to Keep a literary feel.
The pace of the novel is relatively slow. There is enough suspense and unanswered questions to keep me reading steadily, but not so much that I felt rushed to reach the end. The ending was satisfying and I appreciated that the author included an epilogue. (I am big on epilogues. When a story is told in the past tense but I never find out how things ultimately turned out for the protagonist, I feel a bit cheated.)
I think that the faith element of the story could have been developed more without being preachy. Roz’s questions about God and the afterlife come up a couple of times in the story, and in the end she makes the discovery that God is her father, a fitting divine realization considering the failings of her earthly father. It’s hinted that Roz’s mother grows out of her agnosticism over time, and we never find out what happened to Wally’s anger and cynicism. I wish there had been more resolution of Wally’s story, even if it weren’t particularly happy.
Overall, I found Promises to Keep to be a beautifully written and satisfying story, one that will remain in my library collection for years to come.
About Ann Tatlock:
Ann Tatlock is the author of eight novels and holds a master’s degree in journalism from Wheaton College Graduate School. She also teaches at the Blue Ridge Mountains Writer’s Conference and online through the Christian Writer’s Guild. Ann Ann lives with her husband and daughter in North Carolina.