City of Tranquil Light

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. Continue reading