Sisters of the Undertow


Sisters of the Undertow, launched in late February 2020 is Johnnie Bernhard’s third novel.

Her inspiration for the story came from an experience she had at an author’s event in a downtown urban library, when she realized that a number of the patrons were homeless. The experience of reading to those who live on the streets led her to develop a character who is a librarian working at a downtown library in Houston.

Johnnie says, “To understand the diversity in Houston, please consider the fact that over ninety languages are spoken there. Houston is truly an international city, which I love. This allowed me to create some terrific characters in Sisters of the Undertow.”

The other touch point of this novel for the author came from viewing the emotionally raw television interview of a young woman married to an NFL player. What she saw as a viewer were two perfectly healthy, financially-stable human beings, but the reality was for this young couple was that the woman not carry a pregnancy to full term. For Johnnie, that was heartbreaking, and thus, she created another character for the novel who faces this same situation. The mother in the novel eventually delivers two daughters, one who is gifted and healthy, while the other daughter is born at twenty-nine weeks. Since the setting in the novel is the early 1970s, healthcare could not provide for premature babies what it can provide today. So, the basic plot and angst of this novel is the story of two sisters who begin life from very different places.

“I try to incorporate the ‘every man’ concept or the universal concept, into my novels. Meaning the things we all experience. Sibling rivalry is universal.”

When asked if she herself experienced it, Johnnie says, “Of course, I did. I’m one of four sisters, all only a few years apart. I always reflect on those morning when we all were getting ready for school. Lots of arguments over ‘that’s my shirt, don’t wear it and where are my earrings you borrowed?’ Of course, as children we always want to be the favorite, especially with a parent or grandparents. Yes, there’s lots of material for a writer in sibling rivalry.”

Another experience the author had was reading about the famous the Marfa Lights. For those who are not familiar with these, the Marfa Lights, also known as the Marfa Ghost Lights, have been observed near U.S. Route 67 on Mitchell Flat, east of Marfa, Texas. Onlookers have attributed them to paranormal phenomena, but scientific research suggests that most, if not all, are atmospheric reflections of automobile headlights and campfires. Even so, the possibility of “what if” prompter Johnnie to I talk her husband into going to see the lights.

Just as in the novel, she and her husband pulled their vehicle into an open field, along with many other cars, and waited for something to happen.
Johnnie says, “The area is desert with beautiful mountains, so the setting is already spiritual. We waited for several hours. Nothing happened for us, but people have claimed for years they see interesting lights and colors. Who knows? It’s too rich not to use in a story!”

Her descriptions of the setting are so vivid, that other novelists have weighed in.

Kathleen M. Rodgers, author of The Flying Cutterbacks, (soon to be released) says, “I grew up in eastern New Mexico, only five miles from state line, and my youngest graduated from Texas Tech. Sisters of the Undertow novel totally gives its reader the sense of place about west Texas and also about college life.”

And Claire Fullerton, author of one of my favorite novels, Mourning Dove, commented, “That memorable scene in Sisters of the Undertow stayed with me. This book is so good, I read it twice.”

Apart from writing novels, Johnnie Bernhardt is deeply involved in charity work.

“The experience makes me think about my own place in the world, the opportunities I’ve been given simply because I was born into a loving family and ate three squares a day. Gratitude is important. It is something one sister lives by in the novel, and the other sister never acknowledges until it’s almost too late. But in general, for authors and other artists, I believe charity work is vital. As writers, we have the tendency to live in a bubble. We want quiet, thinking time. We’ve got to get out and see what’s going on in the world, beyond our own circle. Charity work allows us to grow as human beings by giving to others, but it also allows us to see humanity beyond our front door.”

Ms. Bernhard is working on her fourth novel, again set in Texas, about ghost dogs who protect a grave. Sounds very intriguing.

Sisters of the Undertow is available now online and in all fine book outlets.


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