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When a good church girl starts singing in a jazz club and falls for the music—as well as a handsome, African-American man—she struggles to reconcile her childhood faith with her newfound passions.

When a good church girl starts singing in a jazz club and falls for the music—as well as a handsome African American man—she struggles to reconcile her childhood faith with her newfound passions.

Raised in the Danish Baptist Church, Rose Sorensen knows it’s wrong to sing worldly songs. But Rose still yearns for those she hears on the radio—“Cheek to Cheek,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—and sings them when no one is around.

One day, Rose’s cousin takes her to Calliope’s, a jazz club, where she dis­covers an exciting world she never knew existed. Here, blacks and whites mingle, brought together by their shared love of music. And though Rose wor­ries it’s wrong—her parents already have a stable husband in mind for her—she can’t stop thinking about the African American pianist of the Chess Men, Theo Chastain. When Rose returns to the jazz club, she is offered the role of singer for the Chess Men. The job would provide money to care for her sister, Sophy, who has cerebral palsy—but at what cost?

As Rose gets to know Theo, their fledgling relationship faces prejudices she never imagined. And as she struggles to balance the dream world of Calliope’s with her cold, hard reality, she also wrestles with God’s call for her life. Can she be a jazz singer? Or will her faith suffer because of her worldly ways?

Set in Depression-era Chicago and rich in historical detail, Sing for Me is a beautiful, evocative story about finding real, unflinching love and embracing—at all costs—your calling.

Sing for Me


I know something’s up when Rob gives the DeSoto’s steering wheel a sharp spin and we veer off the dark city street. There’s no intersection here, no corner to round, not even a one-way alley to barrel down the wrong way. There’s just a stretch of ramshackle sidewalk, over which Rob’s rattletrap lurches, thin, patched tires thunking against the wooden slats. And a vacant, rutted lot—we hurtle across this, too, car bottoming out, axles grinding, seat springs twanging. And a looming blackness that suddenly engulfs us like the mouth of a vast cave.

Rob brakes abruptly, and we skid to a stop.

Only now do I think to grab the dashboard and hold on tight. My heart thuds in my chest. A moment ago, we were, in a series of twists and turns, driving south. Now we’re facing east. State Street, Michigan Avenue, Lake Michigan, the invisible line of the far horizon—all are somewhere ahead, beyond my ken. From somewhere behind, from the West Side of the city (where Mother, Dad, Andreas, and Sophy sleep in their beds, I hope and pray), something rumbles. A gathering storm.

“Are we lost? Or have you gone bananas?” I say this to Rob as calmly as I can, which is to say, not so very calmly.

My cousin doesn’t answer. He doesn’t need to, what with the way he lets out a wolfish howl as the ground begins to tremble, and the car, and now I might as well start trembling, too, because it’s one of those nights. Rob’s off his rocker. Forget his promises; Rob’s promises are mostly whims. I should know this by now. I never should have climbed out my bedroom window and down the fire escape to sneak out with him. I should have been a good girl, followed the rules I’ve been taught since I could toddle, the rules I try so hard to follow.

I clap my hands over my ears at the sound that’s closing in on us now. No rumbling storm after all, nothing so tame as thunder and lightning. A metallic monster roars overhead. There’s a flash of white light, and another, shot through with blue. Fiery sparks rain down, illuminating rusted steel girders rising on either side of us, curving tracks above, grinding wheels.

Of course. I lower my hands, relieved. Not a monster. Just the elevated train. We’re parked in the El tracks’ shadow.

I should have known this, as the El passes right outside our apartment’s bathroom every hour on the hour, shaking cracked windowpanes, stirring water in the toilet. Nearly three months, we’ve lived where we live now; still the train startles me every time it rattles by. Saddens me, too. Angers me. How far my family has fallen. Whenever I consider the cold, hard fact of our perilous state, I try to remember what Mother says and says and says: “All will be well. God is with us.” I try to believe her.

I can’t believe in much of anything right now—I can’t even think. Not with Rob howling back at the El in rage or rapture, I don’t know which. Some little thing vibrates and goes ping inside my skull. My left eardrum, maybe. I punch Rob’s shoulder.

“Stop it!”

Rob’s shoulder is plump, like the rest of him has gotten this last year since his father died and everything went wrong in his life, as he sees it. In this regard—the everything-is-wrong regard—Rob and I have a lot in common these days. All the more reason why he should have followed through on what he promised and done something right.

I give him another sock. “Be quiet!”

Rob quiets. We sit for a moment as the El rumbles away. Now I can hear the soft swish, swish of Rob’s hand, rubbing where I punched.

“That hurt, Rose.”

“You’re not the injured party here.” I let out a loud sigh of frustration. “You know what I wanted tonight, Rob. I didn’t want any hijinks. I just wanted to hear some good music. You promised.”

“It’ll be your birthday present, three weeks late,” Rob promised. (This was at the sociable after church last Sunday.) “You’ve been twenty-one for nearly a month already.” (As if I needed reminding.) “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to enjoy what the city has to offer—in moderation, of course. Everything in moderation.” Smirking, Rob dumped more sugar into his cup of coffee, and stirred it with a spoon as he stirred my wishes and dreams with his words. “Trust me, Rose. I’ll take you exactly where you want to go. Chicago is your oyster.”

I’ve never tasted oysters. I don’t desire to—just the raw thought of them makes me almost gag. But that doesn’t mean I hesitated much when Rob offered me the city on a half shell.

I told him I wanted to see Mahalia Jackson, the gospel singer down on the South Side, whose voice nearly brings me to my knees when I listen to her on the radio. Mahalia Jackson’s singing is flat-out gorgeous, as deep and expansive, stormy and serene as Lake Michigan. (I’d say the ocean, but I’ve never seen the ocean.) The way Mahalia Jackson takes liberties with the likes of “Amazing Grace” and “At the Cross,” the way she sustains notes when anyone else would run out of breath—well, she leaves me breathless. I’ve seen only one picture of Mahalia Jackson and the sanctified gospel choir that sings with her, on a poster that someone tacked on a telephone pole outside the Chicago Public Library. Come Sing and Worship with Us! All Nations and Races Welcome! The words floated above their heads like a kind of halo. In their satin gowns, the choir—men and women both—glowed and shimmered like the stars I don’t see very often anymore, now that we live surrounded by so many buildings and streetlights. And with her shining smile and radiant eyes, Mahalia Jackson was the brightest star of all.

All I want to do is sing like Mahalia Jackson. I can’t, obviously. For one thing, I haven’t got her voice. My voice is its own kind of good, I’ve been told by a few dear ones who’d probably say that if I sounded like a donkey braying. But my voice is not the kind of voice that brings a person to her knees. My voice is too high and too thin; it breaks under pressure. If there was a hope on this cold, gray earth of my voice growing stronger, becoming, in its own way, really good, maybe even great . . . well, I’d have to sing, wouldn’t I? I’d have to have the time. The place. The chance. But except for the occasional offertory solo at church, there’s no hope of that. Pretty much since I graduated from high school, I’ve either been working—cleaning apartments and houses, mostly—or tending to Sophy. I’m doing what needs to be done. Following rules, not breaking them. Keeping my family afloat, or, at the very least, helping them bale out the waters of ruin that threaten to submerge our little ark of survival.

“Tonight isn’t hijinks, Rose,” Rob says. He’s still rubbing his arm. “Tonight is living. And there’ll be some high-caliber live music, I promise.”

“You promise.” I scowl, never mind that my cousin probably can’t make out much of my face in the darkness. “We’re nowhere near Mahalia Jackson’s church, am I right? You never intended us to be, did you?”

“Who put a bee in your bonnet?”

“You did! I wish that train had stopped. I’d have gotten right on board and gone to hear her sing all by myself.”

Rob snorts. “Not half likely. You don’t know beans about the city.”

“You’re so . . . bad!” I practically spit the last word.

Rob laughs. “You wouldn’t know bad if it jumped up and bit you.”

“Don’t underestimate me.”

Rob suddenly goes serious. “I don’t underestimate you, Rose. You underestimate yourself.”

This hits me like a slap. I can’t think of what to say, which makes the bee in my bonnet buzz with even more ferocity. If I could sting Rob, I would.

“The night is young, Rose, and so are we.” My cousin’s voice drips with sultry innuendo. “And the waiting world is wanting and wanton.” Then, with a snap of his fingers: “Hey! That’s catchy. Make that your number-one single, why don’t you. Bet your bottom dollar it’ll hit the top of the charts.”

“I don’t sing songs like that.” Through gritted teeth, I say this. “You know that, Rob. I don’t even sing, hardly.”

My cousin throws back his head and laughs harder than I’ve heard him laugh in a long time. “Tell me another one, why don’t you,” he says when his laughter finally subsides.

Forget sting. I could kill him. Not exactly the Christian thing to do. Perspiration beads on my upper lip. I run my finger under the collar of my dress. It’s mid-February, below freezing, and I’m sweating like it’s mid-July. My coat smells faintly of wet wool. A horrible, damp animal odor. I shrug off my coat and fling it in the backseat.

“Take me home, Rob. Right now. Then you can do whatever you want.”

The car’s close air stirs as Rob jerks his hand over his shoulder, a vague gesture at something I can’t see. “What I want—what you want, even if you won’t admit it—is just over there. Waiting.”

“Want schmant. I need to go home before I get caught.”

Rob bwacks and cackles. “Chicken.”

“Home.” My voice rises with desperation.

“So you can play nursemaid to your sister, housemaid to your folks, and just plain dumb to your brother? No. You are not going to spend another Friday night rotting away in that hovel you call home. I’m broadening your horizons, musical and otherwise. Consider it my good deed for the day. Heck, consider it my good deed for the year, Laerke.”

At the sound of my nickname, my fury cools a degree. Laerke in Danish means the same as lark in English: a sweet-singing songbird. Rob’s the only one who calls me that. Besides Sophy, Rob’s the only one who really goes on about my singing anymore. Mother’s too worn out to think about such things. Andreas is too busy thinking about himself. Dad just doesn’t care—not about anything but money and Sophy. Only Sophy and Rob beg to hear my renditions of this song or that. But this or that doesn’t give either of them—especially Rob—the right to tell me what I want or need.

Again, I say it: “Home.”

Rob drums his fingers on the steering wheel and waits.

“It’s creepy here.” I add a little quaver to my voice. “We could get mugged. Or worse. You read the papers. You remember last week, in a place just like this under the El, a man was murdered. The Trib said he might have been a member of Frank Nitti’s outfit—”

“Oh, buck up! This neighborhood is safer than the one you live in.”

Rob digs for something beneath the driver’s seat. There’s a crack and the smell of sulfur. A flame flares from a long wooden match—the kind Dad uses now to light the old oven in our kitchen. As Rob grins at me through the warm glow, the buzzing bee of my fury fades away completely, and I remember why I love him so, why I love only Sophy more in this whole wide world. And it’s not just because the two of them still ask me to sing. My cousin Rob, with his round gray-green eyes, curly golden hair, and deep dimples—he knows everything there is to know about me, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and still he’s as loyal as they come. He might get me in trouble, but he’d never hurt me. Not on purpose.

Rob reaches into the backseat now, the match’s flame wavering, and retrieves a big paper bag. He shakes the bag’s contents onto my lap. I gasp as out spills a sapphire-blue dress, the kind I never thought I’d be able to have, especially not now. In the match’s glow, I can make out the flowing butterfly sleeves, the lightly padded shoulders, the narrow waist, the long, sweeping skirt. It’s the latest style, which I’ve only seen worn by the mannequins posed in the windows of Marshall Field’s, or on models photographed for the Trib’s fashion section. The fabric is so soft and silky that it might as well be water, moving between my hands. Maybe it’s rayon, the newest sensation. I’ve never worn anything made of rayon before. And there’s a zipper running up the side. Zippers have been hard to come by these last years, now that Mother makes most of my clothes. She says sewing zippers is too much trouble.

The match sputters out. Rob strikes another against the side of the box. I lift the dress close to the soft circle of light.

“Where on earth?” I brush a sleeve against my cheek. “This must have cost a fortune.” Or what my family calls a fortune now. Five dollars at least.

Rob shrugs. He pokes at a silver satin purse lying on the seat beside me, which must have spilled out of the paper bag with the dress. “Look inside.”

I unsnap the purse’s mother-of-pearl clasp, and there, nestled in the black velvet lining, are two matching mother-of-pearl barrettes, a tube of lipstick, a pot of cream rouge, a black eyeliner pencil, and a round white cardboard box with the words Snowfire Face Powder inscribed in scrolling letters across the top.

“It was a gift set, Rose, a real good deal. I got it just before Christmas. I’ve been saving it for you ever since—for tonight.”

“But . . .” I blink. “I don’t wear makeup.”

“Right. And you don’t sing songs like that.”

“I don’t.”

“Well, as of tonight, you do, Laerke. Really, truly. No denying it.”

I bite my lip. “If Mother and Dad ever found out we were even having this discussion—”

“And my mother, and Pastor Riis, and the entire population of the Danish Baptist Church, not to mention all the Scandinavian immigrants in Chicago, fresh off the boat or the farm . . . wouldn’t you be the talk of the town then, Rose, a real scandal? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“No. That would not be fun. That would be bad.”

“Which would be good, as far as I’m concerned.” The flame sputters out. Rob lights another match. He frowns, looking me up and down. “You can’t go out on the town resembling a missionary to the heathen. At least, not with me.”

For the first time, I take in what Rob’s wearing: a silvery gray double-breasted suit made of soft, supple wool. I’ve never seen him in a suit this nice before. The heavily padded shoulders, also the latest style, make him look a lot more muscular than he is.

He notices me noticing. “Pretty snazzy, huh?” In the flickering match light, he cocks the rearview mirror, then cranes his neck to check the knot of his tie, which is the same gray-green as his eyes.

“You look very handsome. Now please tell me how you managed to come up with these duds on a secretary’s salary.”

Rob sighs, and out goes the match. He lights another. “I’ve been saving. Working all the time like I do, you got to save for something special.”

I finger his cuff. “Still, this plus the dress—”

Rob clucks his tongue. “Stickler for details, aren’t you. Well, if you must know, I found the dress and the suit at a pawnshop. Not a big surprise, right, with so many stuffed shirts going belly up since the Crash? Anyway, who cares how I got it? It’s an investment for my future. I’m going to be one of those stuffed shirts one day and buy lots of suits like this—even better. Just you wait, I’ll be the best-dressed lawyer in town. Oh, Rose.” Rob’s voice goes soft. “I want this, see? I want to live a little.” He clears his throat and firmly says, “You will, too—especially once you’ve given it a try.”

“Last time I checked, I was alive,” I mutter. But I can’t help but think maybe Rob’s right. I’m twenty-one, for heaven’s sake. I might as well be in my sunset years, for the way I spend my nights.

“You’re alive if living is cleaning up other people’s messes and taking Sophy out for walks.” Rob confirms my thoughts, but the bee buzzes in my head again.

“You talk about Sophy like she’s a dog!”

Rob ducks his head, appropriately embarrassed. “You know what I mean, Rose, and I don’t mean that.” Gently, he takes the dress from my hands and drapes it across the backseat beside my ugly, stinky coat. “Now get changed.”

A startled laugh escapes me. “Where?”

“There.” Rob jerks his thumb at the backseat. “When you’re done, you can use the rearview mirror to doll yourself up.”

I shake my head hard. “I’m not doing any such thing.”

Rob levels a look at me. “You are doing such a thing. Or I’m telling about those songs. Your singing.”

My so-called singing. It’s what I do when I’m alone, or I think I’m alone, only to discover Rob sitting outside my window on the fire escape, listening, his eyes wide with astonishment and delight.

I slam my fists against my thighs. Rob catches hold of my hands and stops me from doing it a second time.

“Listen, Rose. Listen to me now. I’m on your side. You know that. Tonight is only for your own good.”

“You wouldn’t tell. You promised.” My voice cracks and falters. “But promises, promises. That’s you all over, right?”

“Come out with me and have a good time.” Rob tucks a lock of my hair behind my ear. “It’s just music, Laerke, music that’s made for you. A little good music never hurt anybody. And you know, if you’d just let ’er rip and sing what you really want to sing, your voice could . . . well, who knows what might happen! You’ve just got to believe, Laerke. You’ve just got to get past the past, your fears, your family.”

“I Got Rhythm,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Songs of the world, not of the church. Songs that are wrong. These are the songs I love, in a different way than I love “Amazing Grace” and “At the Cross,” but deeply, so deeply, as deeply as Mahalia Jackson must love singing gospel. These are the worldly songs I sing that I shouldn’t, leaving Rob wide-eyed with astonishment and delight.

I want Rob to keep my secret. I want to hear some music. Most important (at least, this is what I tell myself), I don’t have another way home.

I climb into the backseat and begin to change.
This reading group guide for Sing for Me includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Karen Halvorsen Schreck . 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.


Rose Sorensen is a young woman gifted with a voice to sing and a heart to serve her disabled sister. Raised in the Danish-Baptist Church and by emotionally absent parents, Rose plays the roles expected of her within these spheres of protection. But what happens when a young woman crosses these thresholds and finds that she is fully alive in a jazz club that plays secular music rather than the cathedral halls of her church filled with hymns? And what happens when she is most happy in the presence of an African-American pianist rather than with the Danish man her parents believe she should marry? Rose’s passions clash against the ideals and secure ways of life for a young Danish woman in depression-era Chicago. Tenacity and true faith, amidst great risk, are born out of Rose’s resolute pursuit to discover God’s calling on her life as well as true love.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Rose’s passion for worldly music rather than solely religious music cross the boundaries that her church and family place on her. Her supportive cousin Rob knows this well, claiming “It’s just music, Laerke, music that’s made for you...You’ve just got to get past the past, your fears, your family.”? (p. 14) Have you had a passion or gift that goes against others’ expectations of you or even your own ideology? How have you responded to this tension? Why?
2. Rose’s parents always made sure she and her sister Sophy stayed out of colored neighborhoods. When Rob brings Rose to Calliope’s for the first time, do you think her fears are related most to being caught in a colored neighborhood or more to being at a jazz club that plays secular music? Explain. Do you think her apprehensions are attached more to her parents’ rules for her or her own beliefs? Why?
3. When Rose encounters Theo for the first time, she shares, my “skin prickles with some emotion I can’t put a name to. Fear. I try that on for size, but it doesn’t fit. Embarrassment. Nor that. Recognition is the word that comes to mind, though that’s not a feeling is it? It’s an experience. I’m having an experience of recognition, standing face to face with this man.” (p. 22) Have you ever had an experience, be it circumstantially or an encounter with another, that felt like this? Describe it. Why do you think you felt that way?
4. On one occasion while Rose is bathing Sophy, Sophy has a wild fit. Her fit is“…because in this moment, as in nearly every moment of her life, her desires are frustrated, her wishes out of her reach.” (p. 36) How does Rose’s description of Sophy here parallel her own life? Are there areas of your life that also fit this statement? If so, what are they? Select one to expand upon.
5. Rose’s pastor proclaims, “It is of the utmost importance that we have a call. We were born to serve God in a way that He has ordained for us.” (p. 58) Rose reflects that it is “one thing to dream of singing for provision. It’s another thing altogether to dream of singing for pleasure.” Do you believe God’s callings can combine both provision and pleasure? Or do you see them consistently through the lens of having one but not the other?
6. The tension of the times in which Rose lives is evident in the scenes where she must ride in the backseat of Theo’s car. He plays the role of the chauffeur and she the passenger, to be better “safe than sorry.” (p. 107) Today, there are tensions too: racial, religious, socioeconomic and more. How are you impacted by such tensions, if at all? What is your response?
7. In Chapter 10, the truth of Rob and Rose’s visit to Calliope’s comes out one Sunday at family lunch. Rose’s father bruises her arm in an angry grip and speaks hurtful words to her. This is not the first time she is emotionally hurt by her father, or other family members, so why do you think it is such a significant turning point for Rose? “Far weightier is the truth, which is what I will live for from now on, never mind where it takes me.” (p. 129) Recount a turning point in your life that was facilitated out of pain.
8. Once Rose makes the final leap and officially joins The Chess Men to sing, she feels “better than wonderful” and “whole” for the first time. (p. 158) Even in the secular, Rose experiences and shares the sacred. “Never mind race or creed, status or religion. The strangers in this (Calliope’s) room are not strangers. They are my brothers and sisters. We are children of God.” (p. 183) Do you think all believers are able and meant to experience the sacred in the midst of the secular? Can you identify opportunities for this perspective in your own life?
9. Sophy continuously requests Rose to sing, associates her to The Little Mermaid story and knows what and who makes her happy. How does Sophy influence Roses’ choices?
10. How does the theme of risk in pursuit of love and dreams weave its way throughout the book? Rose claims that the “risks are worth it.” (p. 248) Recount a time in your life when the risks were worth it and another time in your life when the risks did not seem worth it. What would you do differently, if anything?
11. In the opening of Chapter 19, Andreas and Rose’s father rescue she and Theo from Mike and his hoodlum gang. Always feeling so much emotional negligence and hurt by her Dad, how do you think Rose felt after being defended by him in this scene? How did this fight for his daughter change Rose’s father? What evidence of her father’s change is displayed at Sophy’s baptism?
12. Theo flees to New Orleans to find himself as well as to set Rose free. Initially, he cannot bear the thought of keeping them at risk. Was it surprising to you that Rose remains in Chicago, hopeful and patient for his return? Why or why not? Describe a time that you created space between yourself and a loved one in order to protect them.
13. Immediately before Nils proposes to Rose, he bows his head and says “Save us,” most likely to God. (p. 282) Why do you think Nils desires to marry Rose despite his obvious objections to parts of who she is? How can you see yourself in Nils’ character, loving someone but perhaps not wholly aligning yourself with his or her choices or beliefs?
14. Theo returns home to Rose, surprising her with his presence at the piano while she is in the middle of a song at Calliope’s! How does Rose’s experience at Mahalia Jackson’s church, hand in hand with Theo, encapsulate all of her longings, voicing that this is what she has “wanted from the beginning?” (p. 300) How has Rose changed from her first mention of Mahalia Jackson at the beginning of the novel to who she is in this closing scene?
15. How does the role of music serve as a bridge between racial divides, socioeconomic status and religious differences in the story? What about present day?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Research Mahalia Jackson. When did her career officially start and how? Listen online to the liberties she takes with songs and her beautiful voice in her renditions of Amazing Grace, Down by the Riverside and Lord Don’t Move the Mountain. Discuss how the lyrics of the latter parallel Rose’s journey.
2. Identify a calling in your life that you have neglected or left unfulfilled. What factors and risks have kept you from moving forward? Share this with the group and what it would look like if you could move forward in it.
3. Rose’s childhood faith and parental expectations clash against her passion to sing in a jazz club. Share your views on what it means to be a believer in God while truly living in the midst of real life and non-believers. Specifically, what do you base these views on?
4. Rob, Sophy and Theo are all instrumental in lovingly pushing Rose to pursue what she loves. Is there someone in your life you need to be tangibly supportive of in their pursuit of freedom, love or dreams? How can you or the group do so?
5. Attend or volunteer at an event that crosses the groups’ normal racial, social or economic boundaries. Perhaps attend a live performance concert, a theater show or volunteer with a soup kitchen. Perhaps visit a park or serve at a nursing home. Take note of how it makes you feel to be outside of your normal sphere and share these thoughts with the group afterwards.   

A Conversation with Karen Halvorsen Schreck 

Who or what inspired you to write Sing for Me?  

I was originally inspired by the stories my dad told me about growing up as the child of Danish immigrant parents in Chicago during the early part of the twentieth century. My love for music inspired me, too.

You are not only an author but also a teacher of writing and literature. How does this, accompanied with your educational background in English and creative writing, influence your writing and storytelling process?  

What doesn’t influence my writing and storytelling process? Maybe that’s more the question. I clean my house, for example; I get down on my knees and scrub the floor. Because I do that work, I’m better able to write about Rose’s experience in Sing for Me. Washing the floor is a creative act that inspires and contributes to my storytelling process. I honestly believe this. In fact, I’ve made a recent resolution to embrace this more unified way of looking at experience. Increasingly, I want to break down the divisions between work and play, between productivity (of a certain nature) and creativity (of a certain nature). Doing so sure makes washing the floor a happier time.

So back to the original question about my teaching and studying literature and writing: as with cleaning the house, my time in academia has absolutely influenced and contributed to my storytelling process. I’ve spent so much joyful, challenging time reading and reflecting actively and deeply on all kinds of writing. Whether the work is traditionally published or that of my students, I learn an immense amount about writing, story-making, life from so much of what I read. Cliché as this may sound, I never stop learning. It’s a gift really, and like cleaning the floor, teaching and studying writing and literature feeds a single fire.

Who is your favorite character? Why?  

I’ve heard other writers say this, and I’ll concur: I simply can’t answer this question. If I were to try, it would be a bit like my saying that I favor my daughter over my son, or my son over my daughter. The truth is my children are very different people, and I love them equally. This goes for my characters, too. As I write my way forward in a book, I get to know the people who populate the pages; I enter into their lives, hearts, and minds, and they enter into mine. The more time I spend with them, the more I come to care for them in all their complexity, and this goes for the more “minor” characters, too. In the end, I find myself thinking about each and every character: Oh, you have such a story to tell, too. I want to write your story! Tell me. I’m listening.

A large portion of Sing for Me was written during your Metra train commutes to Chicago for work, along with various other nooks and crannies in the city’s centers. Describe your favorite writing location or room.  

I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at a formative age. I had wonderful teachers and read wonderful writers who said things like: A window works best for me at this level in my writing room, and I make a practice of handwriting my first drafts in pencil on lined paper always, and I keep my desk bare except for my paper and pencil and the coffee I made the night before and put into a thermos because I only write in the morning hours, starting before dawn so that I enter the page in a kind of dream state. I thought that kind of practice was wonderful way back when, when I first read and heard such statements. For years, I tried to emulate them.

Then I had kids.

And then the basement room where I worked in our current house flooded and became unusable as a writing space.

And then I took an extended freelance job that had me commuting regularly.

Luckily, at some point, I also read the amazing poet Lucille Clifton, who said, “The best conditions for me to write poetry are at the kitchen table, one kid’s got the measles, another two kids are smacking each other. You know, life is going on around me.”

I found the essence of Lucille Clifton’s statement both convicting and liberating. Never mind the ideal scenario, I needed to get the work done, and I could and would find a way. Look at Lucille Clifton. She did.

Thus, writing on the train, where every morning and evening (if possible) I’d alight on one of my two favorite perches: an upper seat by the window at the back of the blessed quiet car, or a lower level seat by the window at the back of the blessed quiet car. I loved (and still love) writing on a train, the miles rolling by beneath me. I think it helps me with things like pacing and plot—all that momentum and motion I’m feeling in my body get carried over onto the page.

I also love the Silent Reading Room in the Wheaton Public Library; my kitchen table; my couch, especially if it’s winter and there’s a fire in the fireplace; my son’s bedroom, because the WiFi’s best there; and a particular friend’s third-floor upstairs’ study, where I did a fair portion of solid revision over the course of a week. Cafés, not so much anymore. The music. The noise. I drink too much coffee and then I can’t focus, and then I smell like coffee for far too long after. But most any other place: give me a quiet place and I’ll do my best to get the work done.

By the way, Lucille Clifton also said this: “Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”


This novel is steeped in historic detail of Depression-era Chicago. What was your research process like?  

With his stories, my father gave me an incredible understanding of Depression-era Chicago—an understanding that became so much a part of me at an early age that I almost felt it was my history, too. But in addition, I did research by reading a lot of books—nonfiction and fiction—about Chicago, the Depression, jazz, the African American experience, and the immigrant experience.(In fact, two of my areas of study for my doctoral exams were literature of the immigrant experience and African American women writers.) I interviewed journalists who write about the Chicago jazz and blues scene. I listened to the music that I included in the novel (such a pleasure). Watched movies made during that time or set in that time, and other people’s very old home movies from the 1930s, which, God bless them, they’d posted on YouTube. I also explored historically focused websites and, yes, Facebook groups—you’d be amazed at how much I got out of one particular website that was completely devoted to antique postcards.

What would you describe as the main theme(s) in Sing for Me?  

This is what I believe about theme, and because I can’t say it any better than Flannery O’Connor, I’ll let her say it for me:

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.

What do you want readers to experience or take away from this novel?  

Hope, in spite of, because of.

This story, or at least a version of it, has been on your heart since 1996. Though likely different from Rose’s factors and risks in pursuing her dream, what factors prolonged your completing this novel?  

I couldn’t get the words right. Really. I tried many different times and ways to write this book, but I just couldn’t get the words right. Or the characters and plot (especially the plot). Also, other stories possessed me, and I felt called to tell those stories, too. “Write where the pressure is,” the great writer Larry Woiwode once said to me, and the pressure was with those stories in those seasons. And then there were seasons when life, for better and worse, simply demanded all of my attention.

A line from your blog reads, “Sometimes writing feels that way to me, a journey from empty to full, from loss to reconciliation, from mystery to simply story, which doesn’t answer the unanswerable questions, perhaps, but makes them bearable.” How has your own journey of making the unanswerable questions bearable played out in this story?  

The act of imagining, of laying down words and then revising those words—revisioning—is healing for me. Writing stills my soul as prayer does. There’s a kind of emptying process that goes on, a kind of release, that leads yields not just fullness but fulfillment. Plus, writing keeps my head clear. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E. M. Forster wrote, and for me that’s true, too.

Specifically with Sing for Me, I was emptying out a bucketful of questions about discrimination and equality, ability and disability, community and calling, among other things. There were all those questions before me, made flesh in character, infused in setting, played out in scene. What a relief to give shape and make meaning from the mess of questions in my mind.

An excerpt from one of Theo’s letters reads, “None of us are so different from the other in our searching.” Is this an idea that you would like your readers to grasp? Why?  

I work to grasp Theo’s statement every day myself. Often I fail. But when I remember what I believe is a fact—that we have so much more in common with each other than we have with what divides us—when I live like this, then I am more reconciled with the world and the world is more reconciled with me. Bridges get built, chasms crossed.

Can you envision a sequel to Sing for Me?  

Yes, I can. But I will carry these thoughts quietly in my heart (thank you, dear Gospel writer). If I was able to wait for the right time to write this book, surely I will be able to wait for the right time to write the next one.
Photograph © Greg Halvorsen Schreck

Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of three previous novels, Sing for Me, Dream Journal, and While He Was Away. She received her doctorate in English and Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short stories and articles have appeared in Literal Latté, Other Voices, Image, as well as other literary journals and magazines, and have received various awards, including a Pushcart Prize, an Illinois State Arts Council Grant, and in 2009, first prize awards for memoir and devotional magazine writing from the Evangelical Press Association. A freelance writer and frequent visiting professor of English at Wheaton College, Karen lives with her husband and two children in Wheaton, Illinois.

  • Publisher: Howard Books (May 1, 2014)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476705484

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“An impressive debut…a well-wrought and edifying page-turner.”

– Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

"An articulate, well-researched story with an inspirational message about following your
dreams...Hits all the right notes."

– Kirkus

"A poignant story of longing and hope during the American Jazz age in Depression-era Chicago."



– Romantic Times (four stars)

"Sing For Me is an achingly beautiful story of longing and hope in the midst of what seems impossible. Karen Halvorsen Schreck reaches deep into the soul with prose that sings. Straightforward. Honest. Utterly compelling."

– Carla Stewart, award-winning author of Chasing Lilacs and Sweet Dreams

"Karen Halvorsen Schreck's novel pulses with the notes of a smoky, Depression-era jazz club, the rattle of a downtown El train, and -- most poignantly -- the indelible spirit of a courageous heroine, Rose Sorenson. Sing For Me is a story of a woman who remains faithful to the passions that set her soul alight. Readers will feel the struggles of Halvorsen Schreck's fearless and persevering characters, and will be uplifted by the beauty of Rose's songs and spirit."

– Allison Pataki, author of The Traitor's Wife

“A poignant, powerful, honest novel. Karen Halvorsen Schreck's prose and dialogue are 'pitch-perfect' and Rose's story beautifully haunts this reader, long days after reading it."

– Rusty Whitener, author of A Season of Miracles

“With Sing for Me, Karen Halvorsen Schreck takes readers far into the depths of the American Jazz Age -- but with an emotional new twist....Schreck is a masterful storyteller who will hook readers from the first page of this emotional story. Sure to be a fan favorite!”

– Julie Cantrell, New York Times bestselling author of Into the Free and When Mountains Move

Sing for Me is beautiful, pure, and passionate."

– Larry Woiwode, author, Beyond the Bedroom Wall and Born Brothers

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