I recently read City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell (Henry Holt and Co.). In this novel, the elderly widower Will Kiehn is looking back over his life. As a young man, he felt called to go to China as a missionary. There, he met and married fellow recruit Katherine Friesen. Will preached, Katherine did medical work, and together they experienced the formation of a sizeable Christian church in Kuang P’ing Ch’eng (meaning, City of Tranquil Light) and its outlying regions. They also experienced personal struggles and the trials of their adopted country: famine in 1918-22, civil war in 1925-28, the disintegration of an ancient civilization under imperial rule and China’s massive shift to communism.
Interspersed with Will’s backward look is Katherine’s voice, via her diary entries. The use of alternating voices – one with its perspective in the moment, the other through the gaze of memory – makes the story a kind of conversation as well as a telling. It’s a format that adds momentum to a story that feels — in spite of dramatic elements — quiet, gentle, and measured. (As one might expect from an older person’s recollections). It also deepens the thematic resonance of the book.
I liked City of Tranquil Light a lot. And what I like about talking about it here at my blog is that, unlike a more formal review, say for a newspaper or magazine, I can meander – or jump around – as I will. That at least, is how I understand the conventions of blogging. They allow a more personal, if partial, response – one that may, in effect, privilege the experience of reading over the book itself. (This doesn’t mean professionalism, fairness, and reviewing courtesies don’t apply.)
With that said, let me step back a little into my own context. City of Tranquil Light is a missionary story, and I grew up with missionary stories – in books and Sunday school papers and magazines, from the pulpit, in conversations all around me. They were stories of sacrifice, difficulty, and gut-wrenching inspiration. Missionaries were the heroes of an evangelical Protestant childhood; they were the Supermen and Superwomen of our world, and their ocean-crossing the equivalent of the costume change in the telephone booth. I don’t mean this cynically; it’s how things appeared to us.
Most formative for me was the much publicized event in January, 1958 in which five missionaries were killed by the then-called Auca Indians, an event that spawned a raft of books. Shadow of the Almighty: the Life and Testament of Jim Elliot by Elisabeth Elliot was especially influential for my generation. I recall, as well, the influence of Isobel Kuhn and her Green Leaf in Drought-Time, and the poetry of Amy Carmichael.
In my 20s, I found myself both startled and encouraged by a warts-and-all biography of Kenneth Strachan (Who Shall Ascend: The Life of R. Kenneth Strachan of Costa Rica), also by Elisabeth Elliot. Perhaps the warts – the ordinary rather than the saintly – had been there in earlier readings but I’d been unable to see them. At any rate, by my young adulthood, I – and seemingly the wider culture as well – needed a more nuanced approach.
Certainly the super-person sheen of “missionary” is gone. The word has become loaded, even unpleasant for many. Our awareness of the global community has shed some of its notions of exoticism and (I trust) its colonialism. And, I realize, it’s been many years since I’ve read a book in the missionary genre. — Oh yes, there was that scorcher of a novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, not exactly flattering to missionaries, but certainly underlining how complicated such endeavours can be, as they partake of the complicated histories of both sending and receiving countries.
Assuming Bo Caldwell’s book is for the mainstream reading public, I admire her, therefore, for taking on such a subject. She’s not unaware, of course, of the charges against the missionary enterprise; they come up in the setting of this novel too, as missionaries and all other “foreigners” become the enemy in China — the enemy to be expelled. Here’s an exchange between an army commander and Katherine (Kung Mei Li):
“Your feet are set on the wrong path, Kung Mei Li. Foreigners have shown themselves to be pirates and thieves who pose as civilized peoples dealing with barbarians.”
“Yes. Some have. But a man’s face does not always tell you what is in his heart. All foreigners are not alike.”
Following this exchange, one of Will and Katherine’s Chinese friends and colleagues, Lao Chang, steps forward to defend the couple as “teachers of virtue…. They have brought us great good news, and for this we are in their debt.” There were good people among them, Caldwell is showing, and among those, these two – Will and Katherine.
They have their faults, but Will and Katherine extend respect and grace to one another, and we feel this from the author to her characters as well. The portrait Caldwell draws has a noble bearing, and soft edges. If this pulls the book towards a narrative of sainted, sacrificial missionizing I can’t trust as much as I did as a child, it also pulls towards something else I find very compelling: a lovely meditation on love.
There’s the love of Will and Katherine for one another. Will’s voice feels quite formal, even stiff sometimes, but his emotions do come through. Katherine’s voice is freer, more intimate, as suits a diary, though it also reads more formally than a contemporary diary might. In spite of their differences (and the small, appealing secrets they keep from each other), they forge a strong bond.
And, what a love for China grows in them through their many years there! Of their final departure, after many years, on account of Katherine’s health, Will says:
We passed our compound on the right, and the farther away we got, the more my heart seemed to tear. The road turned sharply south and I strained to see our home one last time. Then I saw the city wall, just as I had seen it hundreds of times when I returned from every possible direction, at every odd hour of the day or night. I remembered the first day we had come to Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, and how its name had led me to expect a graceful city bathed in a gentle glow. It had not appeared like that at first sight so long ago, but as I looked back for the last time, that was exactly how it looked: beautiful, and filled with grace.
There’s also Will and Katherine’s love for God. The faith elements of the novel feel, in Caldwell’s warm hands, both genuine and accessible. (Interestingly, in the publisher’s notes provided with the book, Caldwell says that when she first started working on the book, she simply attempted to present her grandfather’s faith accurately. A personal journey to sobriety and a bout with cancer affected her, and then, she says, “I was no longer writing about my grandparents’ faith. I was writing about my own.”)
One last thing. These fictional missionaries are Mennonites, as were Caldwell’s grandparents (Peter and Anna Schmidt Kiehn) and others on whom the characters are based (Nellie and Henry Bartel, Paul and Ina Bartel). This factor presents itself now and then in the details of backgrounds and church relationships, but more significantly in the couple’s responses to violent situations. Here’s another scene from the civil war period, when soldiers advance to their compound, filled with many people who have sought shelter with them, as described by Will:
I stood frozen at the window, staring out at the bodies of fourteen northern soldiers. A wave of raw anger ran through me, a rage unlike anything I had ever felt. I had been taught since I was a small boy to abhor violence, and that the use of force against anyone, whatever the reason, violated God’s word. As an adult I had honored that belief and made certain that our compound stocked no ordnance whatsoever. But at that moment my convictions fell away. Nearly everyone I loved on this earth was in that room and I knew that had I had access to a weapon of any sort, at that moment I would have used it without hesitation.
I breathed; I forced my attention to God and asked Him to direct my thinking, and my emotions quieted enough to think more rationally….
The Mennonite angle will make this book interesting to Mennonite audiences, though it may also provoke some tiny quibbles. Will mixes up the details of his Mennonite heritage in Prussia and Russia. He also says that “the practice of the Mennonite church was baptism by full immersion.” Of his group yes, but not of many Mennonites.
But I’ve meandered – or jumped about – long enough. I was invited to receive this book from the publisher, Henry Holt and Co., because of its Mennonite connection I believe. In accepting the invitation, I made it clear I would feel under no obligation to review it, or by implication, do so favourably. But I enjoyed the book enough to also make it a pleasure to talk about and recommend here.