Emily Emerson is used to being alone; her dad ran out on the family when she was a just a kid, her mom died when she was seventeen, and her beloved grandmother has just passed away as well. But when she’s laid off from her reporting job, she finds herself completely at sea…until the day she receives a beautiful, haunting painting of a young woman standing at the edge of a sugarcane field under a violet sky. That woman is recognizable as her grandmother—and the painting arrived with no identification other than a handwritten note saying, “He always loved her.”
Emily is hungry for roots and family, so she begins to dig. And as she does, she uncovers a fascinating era in American history. Her trail leads her to the POW internment camps of Florida, where German prisoners worked for American farmers...and sometimes fell in love with American women. But how does this all connect to the painting? The answer to that question will take Emily on a road that leads from the sweltering Everglades to Munich, Germany and back to the Atlanta art scene before she’s done.
Along the way, she finds herself tempted to tear down her carefully tended walls at last; she’s seeing another side of her father, and a new angle on her painful family history. But she still has secrets, ones she’s been keeping locked inside for years. Will this journey bring her the strength to confront them at last?
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When We Meet Again
The phone rang on a Friday morning as I was lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself and trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.
“You’re wallowing, aren’t you?” Brian Mayer, who’d been my managing editor until last week, said when I picked up.
“You fired me.” I pulled the covers over my head, blocking out the morning sun. “Wallowing is my right.”
“Emily, you and I both knew this was coming. And you weren’t fired; your column was canceled for budgetary reasons.” He sighed, and I could hear him shuffling papers. “Besides, it was just a part-time thing. You have plenty of other freelance work to keep you afloat.”
“Yes, magazines and newspapers across the world are just throwing money at journalists these days.” I’d been a freelance magazine writer since my early twenties. Publications were flourishing then, and freelancing was an easy way to make a living if you were willing to work hard. But over the last decade, the market had become flooded with laid-off staff writers and editors, and now there were more journalists than jobs.
“Anyhow, I’m not calling to talk about the current state of journalism,” Brian continued after a moment. “I’m calling because I have something for you.”
I kicked the covers back and sat up. “Another writing gig?”
“Right, because our budget suddenly opened up for no particular reason.” He chuckled. “No, I mean, I have a package for you. It arrived today.”
“Is it from a PR firm?” I was constantly getting random mailings—jars of peanut butter to taste, CDs to review, clothing samples that never seemed to be my size—despite the fact that I’d made a career out of writing personality profiles in addition to my now-defunct column about relationships. It wasn’t like I was suddenly going to write a glowing piece on peanut butter choices. “You can just throw it out or pass it along to an intern.”
“No, I think this is something different.” I could hear more paper shuffling. “It’s a big, flat cardboard box, a poster or something. And it’s hand-addressed to you. Doesn’t look like it comes from a PR company.”
“What’s the return address?”
“It’s from an art gallery in Munich, Germany.”
“Germany?” I was perplexed; my column was only circulated to U.S. papers. Who would want to reach me from Germany?
“I’ll FedEx it over to you, okay? Just wanted to give you the heads-up. And listen, hang in there, okay? Things are going to turn around for you. You’re very talented.”
“Sure,” I said. I hung up before I could tell him what I really thought, which was that “very talented” people didn’t get fired from jobs they’d held for the last three years. Granted, I’d never been a full-time employee of the Craig Newspaper Group, but they’d syndicated my column, Relating, to twenty-three newspapers across the country, where it had a readership in the millions. I’d been paid relatively well, enough that I was comfortable with my income as long as I supplemented it with a couple additional assignments each month. I’d thought I was surviving the collapse of the freelance marketplace, but apparently I’d only been treading water until the sinking began.
I supposed it was about time for me to lose my column anyhow. After all, there’s only so much blind-leading-the-blind that one person can do before someone calls foul. And although I always put a lot of work into whatever I was writing, citing scientific studies or providing quotes from well-adjusted friends and colleagues, the idea of the endlessly single woman with the dysfunctional family history writing authoritatively about relationships was, to some people, laughable. In fact, I secretly kept a file of e-mails and letters from readers who accused me of being a washed-up, bitter old maid. Maybe they were right. Of course there were also plenty of complimentary letters from readers telling me I’d helped them through a divorce or encouraged them to reconcile with an estranged family member, but I’d found that people tended to write more when they were peeved at you than when they were thrilled. Also, they used more four-letter words.
The package from Germany was probably a sarcastic how-to-get-a-man poster from a snarky reader who’d seen my column online. It wouldn’t be the first—or even the fifth—I’d received. However, it might be the first insult I’d gotten in German.
I pulled the covers back over my head and tried to retreat back to sleep. Today was the day my very last piece would run, and I didn’t particularly want to be awake to witness my column’s funeral.
Four hours later, despite my best intentions, I was sitting across the table from my best friend, Myra, at a restaurant overlooking downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola as she dramatically waved the current Orlando Sentinel at me.
“You should be proud,” she said firmly. “Seriously, Emily, you did a lot of good work with this column, and your good-bye was totally classy.”
“I told you I didn’t want to talk about this today.” I took a sip of sauvignon blanc. Wine at two in the afternoon was perfectly acceptable when you no longer had a job. So was the fact that I was already on my second glass.
“Too bad. We’re going to talk about it, because denial never did anyone any good. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote from one of your columns.”
“I’m not denying anything.” I raised my glass in a mock toast. “I’m just pointing out that my whole career so far has been pointless.”
“Self-pity is not attractive on you.” She gestured to the waiter and ordered another Diet Coke. Unlike me, she had a job to get back to. She worked in community outreach for Easter Seals Florida, which meant that she was actually helping people all day long. “Fortunately, you manage to keep all that self-doubt out of your columns.”
I shrugged. She was right; I was much more well adjusted in print than in the real world. If only I could live my whole life behind the protection of a computer screen.
“As I was saying,” she continued after her soda arrived, “this last column was great. And you’re going to land on your feet.”
“I know I will. I just wasn’t planning to be basically unemployed at thirty-six.”
“But look at it this way. You have no obligations, nothing holding you back. No husband, no kids. You can literally do anything. Total freedom.”
I forced a smile. “Yes, lucky me. Perennially single and childless. Every woman’s dream.”
Myra’s brow creased in concern. “That is so not what I meant.”
“I know.” Still, the words stung, especially since Myra knew the statement wasn’t exactly true. I did have a child—but I’d given her up for adoption half a lifetime ago. Now that she had just turned eighteen, an adult herself, the futility of my own life was really hitting home. What had I done with all the supposed freedom that giving a baby up had granted me? A whole lot of nothing, while my child had presumably blossomed under someone else’s roof into a full-grown woman.
Myra’s expression changed, and I could tell that she was now thinking about Catherine—that’s what I’d named my daughter before a nurse whisked her away—too. I’d confided in her four years ago, and it had felt good to finally unburden myself. I’d been carrying the story of my daughter’s existence in some subterranean spot in my heart, in a place where I stored those pieces of my life I wanted to remember and forget at the same time.
“I didn’t mean to say you didn’t have a child,” Myra said quietly. “That was really thoughtless of me.”
I shook my head and tried to look unfazed. “No worries. I mean, hey, you’re right. I gave her up, didn’t I? She’s someone else’s child now, not mine.”
But although I hadn’t seen Catherine since the day I gave birth to her—and although I knew that her new parents had undoubtedly given her a different name—she was still mine in some basic, cellular way. I would always love her; I would always wonder about her; I would always fear that I’d hurt her rather than helped her by giving her away. She was in my blood, in my bones, and even all these years later, she was almost always my first thought when I awoke in the mornings. I had posted queries on an embarrassing number of adoption search sites and chat rooms online in the hopes of finding her one day, just to know she was all right. But she hadn’t surfaced yet.
“So did you mean the things you said here?” Myra asked. She was waving my column around again. “About forgiveness?”
I blinked, drawing myself back from the edge of the self-pity cliff. “I always mean what I write.” It was a glib answer, not exactly untrue, but not the whole truth either. My farewell column had been about moving forward and moving on, and I had written that the key to doing so in a healthy manner was to release past grievances. Grudges stand in the way of building and repairing relationships, I’d said. It was just that letting go wasn’t always as easy as it sounded.
“Then maybe it’s time to take your own advice and forgive yourself,” Myra said. “Maybe you’re feeling stuck in place because you’re still feeling guilty over giving your daughter up.”
“No, I’m not.” My answer was instant, and I knew that my lack of eye contact told Myra everything she needed to know about the veracity of my words.
“Emily.” Myra sighed and shook her head. “Look, we’ve been through this. You made the best decision you could at the time. It wasn’t a selfish act; it was a selfless one. You weren’t equipped for a child at eighteen, especially right after your mom had died. You made a choice to give her a better life.”
I looked down at my wineglass, which was somehow empty. “I know.” And I did know. I’d made the decision for the right reasons. But that didn’t mean I didn’t question it all the time. Besides, there was more to the story than what I’d told Myra. No one in the world—except for my grandma Margaret, who had died earlier this year—knew the whole truth. “In retrospect, it turns out that writing a relationship column might not have been the best choice in the world for a person who wants to bury her head in the sand,” I said when I looked up to find Myra still staring knowingly at me.
She smiled. “Or maybe it was the best thing you could have done, because it forced you to start confronting some of your own demons. But now the hard work begins.”
“The hard work?”
She laughed and glanced down at the column. “I’m going to quote the very wise Emily Emerson here, so get ready: ‘You may have been wronged in the past, but if you don’t find a way to let those grievances go, you’re responsible for dragging yourself down. So find a way to forgive, even if it’s hard.’?” She paused and smiled at me. “So I’ll ask again. Did you mean the things you said here?”
I looked at my lap and nodded.
“Good. Then put your money where your mouth is, my friend. Start forgiving yourself.”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” I said weakly as I gestured to the waiter for another glass of wine. “I’ll get right on that.”
But the truth was, I didn’t know where to begin.
Two days later, the doorbell rang just as I was finishing up a profile of a local triathlete for Runner’s World magazine. The publication was one of my semiregular clients, and I especially enjoyed assignments like this one, in which the subject of the piece was doing something good for the world. In this case, the woman I was writing about was a three-time breast cancer survivor who ran to raise awareness, and I had thoroughly enjoyed interviewing her over lunch in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park last week.
“Coming!” I called, but by the time I got to the door, a FedEx truck was pulling away and there was a flat cardboard box on my front porch. It took me a moment to remember that Brian had promised to forward the package from Germany. I picked it up and carried it inside, still convinced it was just another joke from an unkind reader. But my curiosity got the best of me, so I peeled the tape back and slid the contents out.
Even before I finished taking off the protective wrapping, I knew that what I was holding wasn’t a poster. The paper was thick and textured, and as I peeled back the thin piece of parchment covering it, a small, sealed envelope tumbled out. I grabbed it from the floor and then propped what was actually a small painting against the wall, atop my kitchen table.
And then, frozen in place, I simply stared.
It was a richly textured watercolor of a woman standing in the middle of what looked like a cornfield, her face clearly visible as she stared into the distance. She was wearing a red dress, tattered at the edges and ripped on the right sleeve, and her expression was resolute and wistful at the same time. In the background, the sky was a strikingly deep violet. “What the . . . ?” I murmured as my fingers traced the woman’s face.
She looked exactly like a younger version of my grandma Margaret. I’d written about her death in my Relating column just two months ago, and in the old family photo that had run with the piece—a shot of my grandmother holding my dad’s hand when he was a little boy—she couldn’t have been more than a few years older than the woman in the image before me now.
Feeling strangely breathless and shaken, I reached for the envelope that had accompanied the painting, tore it open along the seam, and removed the small note card inside.
I read your column, and you’re wrong, it read in elegant cursive. Your grandfather never stopped loving her. Margaret was the love of his life.
The note was unsigned, and its weighty, expensive-looking cardstock was nondescript. There was no clue to who had written it, though it was obviously someone who wanted me to believe that he or she knew my grandfather. But that was impossible. The man had vanished before my father was even born. Grandma Margaret had gone silent each time I asked about him, but I knew he had abandoned her, just like my father abandoned my mother and me.
That’s what my column two months ago had been about: the way the decisions of a parent trickle down through the generations. I had written about how my grandmother was a loving person, but how there’d always been a piece of her missing, a part that felt removed. I speculated that my father—who’d been raised without knowing who his own father was—felt both the absence of the man and the absence of his mother’s full attention. Grandma Margaret always seemed to be on the verge of drifting away, and even her death left things feeling somehow unfinished. In fact, it was only after she died that I’d received a final voice mail from her. I need to see you, Emily, she’d said, her voice weak and rasping. Please come as soon as you can, dear. She’d left it before dawn on Valentine’s Day, only hours before she took her last breath, and I’d slept right through it.
I’d ended the column without mentioning my own following of the family footsteps, but in the depths of my own heart, that was really what the piece was about: my fear that, unwittingly, I was walking the same path as my father and grandmother. After all, I hadn’t been in a real relationship for years, and I’d walked away from my own daughter, hadn’t I? Was I fated to become just like them? Was it in my blood? I’d concluded by encouraging readers to think through their own family histories and to confront the things that affected their own relationships before it was too late. It hadn’t escaped my notice that the column was yet one more example of me neglecting to practice what I preached.
I tried to think logically as I stared at the painting. Perhaps it had been painted after my column had run, by someone who used our family photo as a model? But I knew that wasn’t true; the thick paper was slightly yellowed at the edges, suggesting that it was many years old, and the expression on the woman’s face was exactly like my grandmother’s when she was deep in thought, though in the photo that had run with the column, she’d been softly smiling. I was almost certain that it had been painted by someone who knew her. But was the note implying that my long-lost grandfather had been the artist?
I had to figure out where this painting had come from. Walking over to my computer, I googled the name of the gallery, then dialed the phone number posted on its website.
But as the phone rang several times I quickly did the math and realized that it was already nearly 9 p.m. in Munich. I wasn’t surprised when an answering machine picked up. I didn’t understand a word of German, so I had no idea what the outgoing message said, but after it beeped, I began to speak, hoping that someone there spoke English.
“Hi. My name is Emily Emerson, and I just received a painting from your gallery with no indication of who the sender is. It’s a portrait of a woman standing in a field with a beautiful sky behind her. Could you please call me at your earliest convenience?” I left my number, hung up, and spent the next ten minutes in my kitchen, simply staring at the familiar face of my grandmother. Finally, I picked up the phone again, took a deep breath, and called the last person I wanted to talk to.
“Hi,” I said when my father answered. His deep voice was achingly familiar, though I hadn’t spoken with him in nearly eight months. “It’s Emily. I—I need to show you something.”
“Emily?” I hated how hopeful he sounded. It was as if he thought I was finally opening the door to a relationship. But that wasn’t what this was. “Of course. I’ll be right over.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for When We Meet Again includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
When a mysterious painting arrives out of the blue at Emily Emerson’s door, all the heartache and uncertainties in her life bubble to the surface: she is out of work, her mother and grandmother are dead, she isn’t speaking to her father, she abandoned the love of her life, and she gave up her only child for adoption. The painting, which depicts a familiar-looking young woman in a field under a violet sky, stirs a desire in Emily to reconnect with her long-estranged father in an effort to find the grandfather she never knew. Emily and her father travel from Florida to Germany to Georgia and back again, and along the way uncover a family history both beautiful and tragic. In the end, Emily learns about the healing power of art, forgiveness, and love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Our first encounter with Emily Emerson involves her lying in bed on a Friday morning, discouraged and alone. The scene is broken by a telephone call from her former editor, letting her know a package arrived for her—a package we later learn is the painting of Grandma Margaret. How did you initially characterize Emily? Did you feel sorry for her? Is she a likeable character? Without the arrival of the painting, do you think she would have snapped out of her depression? Why or why not?
2. Very early in the novel, the topic of abandonment arises. Emily’s grandfather abandoned her grandmother and father; her father abandoned her; she abandoned Nick and her daughter, Catherine. Discuss this abandonment motif, considering how each of the characters reacts in the wake of being left behind. Does the title—When We Meet Again—hint at reconciliation? Do you think all of the characters find reconciliation in the end? Why or why not?
3. Discuss the structure of the narrative. How does the weaving between the past and present-day story lines affect your understanding of the characters? Do you think this “time travel” allows the story to belong to both Emily and her grandparents? How would the story change if we only had Emily’s point of view?
4. On page 33, Jeremiah tells Emily, “sometimes, when one is living with a broken heart, it’s too hard to give voice to the stories that hurt the most.” Consider the ways in which silence shapes the lives of these characters. Is what is not said a defining aspect of life for Emily, her father, her grandparents, etc.?
5. “Do you really think one bad experience has the power to change a person’s character . . . ?” Myra asks Emily, and she replies that yes, “if you love someone enough and they hurt you deeply, it can change you forever” (pages 70–71). Answer Myra’s question for yourself. Did Grandma Margaret change as a result of her love affair with Peter? Did Peter? In what ways?
6. How is Margaret a symbol of American ideals—specifically life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? In what ways is she the antithesis of these principles? Consider her relationship with her family, Jeremiah, Peter, and Emily in your response.
7. Evaluate Franz Dahler’s character. Do you blame him for allowing Peter to leave his family, his home, and his country? Do you think he could have changed the course of Peter’s life if he had stood up to their father? Is he similar to many of the other characters in that he can “never forget that which you regret” (page 166)?
8. What role does World War II play in the novel? Do all of the characters’ suffering and joy happen as a result of the war?
9. On page 184, Peter declares, “From this moment forward, I am no longer a Dahler.” Consider the ways in which troubled parent/child relationships are the sparks that cause the characters to change their lives and their identities—in some cases very literally. Discuss in relation to the moment when Victor tells Emily, “That’s what being a parent is: loving someone so much that they’ll be a part of you forever, no matter what” (page 190).
10. Revisit the scene, beginning on page 306, when Emily goes to her mother’s grave. Do you think she finds the closure she is seeking? In the end, does Emily “find [her] way back to who [she] used to be” (page 307)?
11. A possible theme for the novel emerges on page 329 when Louise asks Peter, “You ain’t gonna hold a grudge, are you?” Which character seeks forgiveness most? You might consider Emily, Victor, Peter, Louise, Franz, Margaret, or Ingrid in your response.
12. Were you surprised when Nick arrived at Emily’s doorstep? Do you think Nick and Emily are fulfilling the love story that Peter and Margaret never got to have?
13. Ultimately, do you think the painting is responsible for changing Emily’s life? Reflect on the changes in her relationship with her father, Nick, Catherine, and herself. Do you think art has the power to transform the way we understand the world? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Peter and Margaret share a passion for the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson—a poet, essayist, and philosopher who defined the nineteenth-century American literary scene. Spend some time with Emerson in your book club meeting, paying particular attention to his famous essay “Self-Reliance.” Why do you think Peter and Margaret were so drawn to Emerson’s philosophy? Does the pair embody Emerson’s famous saying “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” which suggests that we must always think for ourselves? Share with the group your understanding of Emerson’s belief in the individual. Have you faced a moment in your life, like Peter and Margaret, where you chose to “be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else” (page 60)?
2. “I was floored to learn that nearly four hundred thousand Germans had been imprisoned in the United States during the 1940s, but that newspaper coverage of the POW camps was limited, so many Americans didn’t even know about them. Most of the prisoners had been captured in battle or on German U-boats and had been brought to the States to work” (page 65). Were you as shocked as Emily to learn about the POW camps in the United States during World War II? Consider reading a different take on this unusual piece of World War II history in Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene. Compare and contrast this book with When We Meet Again. What themes do the two share? Did the characters face similar prejudices?
3. The fictional Ralph Gaertner’s paintings are compared to the realist twentieth-century American artist Andrew Wyeth, though Wyeth “painted subjects in a much different kind of landscape, mostly in the northeast region” (page 123) of the United States. With your book club, host an art night. Over appetizers and drinks, preview some Andrew Wyeth paintings (andrewwyeth.com). Do the paintings appear as you might have imagined Gaertner’s? Are they different? How so? Does it seem that Wyeth agrees with Gaertner that “to paint a face was too intimate; it was like baring a person’s soul to the world without their permission” (pages 123–124)? Why or why not?
4. Didn’t get enough Kristin Harmel? Read another book by her with your book club, such as The Sweetness of Forgetting or The Life Intended. With your group, come up with a list of themes that seem to interest this author. How do the families in The Sweetness of Forgetting or The Life Intended compare with Emily Emerson’s family? Do you agree that love and forgiveness are central to all the novels?