Luminous Slice of China
To say that City of Tranquil Light: A Novel (Henry Holt) is a missionary novel would be a reason for some people to dismiss it as inspirational fiction, a genre plagued with didactic tomes that serve more as evangelistic tracts than literary works. City of Tranquil Light is indeed a missionary novel, but it is much more than that. It's a luminous slice of place and time, bringing to life the Chinese landscape of the early 1900s and its people—and one couple who wanted to make a difference.
Bo Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father) carefully crafts a narrative based on the lives of her maternal grandparents. Her tale brims with contrasts: hate and forgiveness, healing and destruction, evil and unselfish faith. Repeatedly, she shows the ability of ordinary people to respond to extraordinary circumstances with perseverance and relentless courage.
The story itself is simple. In 1906, Will Kiehn, an unprepossessing 20-year-old Mennonite farm boy, travels to China as a missionary. His first-person narration forms the backbone of the novel. Juxtaposed with his words are journal entries from Katherine Friesen, a 21-year-old medical missionary. Thrown together, they fall in love and marry. They move to Kuang P'ing Ch'eng—"City of Tranquil Light"—where they establish a medical mission.
Turning the pages is a sensory experience as Caldwell evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of China. A three-week trip down a canal introduces readers to superstitions: eyes painted on boats to help "see ahead," gongs banged at dusk to frighten away evil spirits, roosters sacrificed for a safe journey.
Will and Katherine witness practices in China that initially shock and dismay them. But as an older missionary wisely tells Katherine, "We are here to offer the people the gift of faith, not remake their way of life, even when the change seems necessary and right …. Remember that we're guests, and uninvited ones at that."
Despite numerous difficulties and personal tragedy, Will and Katherine remain in China as hostility toward foreigners escalates under Chiang Kai-shek. The country sinks into depravity and destitution. At one point, the couple cares for 150 orphans. They haunt the village marketplace, buying small children for as little as three dollars apiece, knowing the children will otherwise be sold into prostitution by their starving parents. Somehow, they feed as many as 400 people each day. Bandits loot and kill.
Grief and poverty age both Will and Katherine beyond their years. "There is so much suffering I cannot take it in," Katherine writes. When the Chinese ask Will why he stays, he replies, "My home is here. And if my belly were full but my heart empty, what would I gain?" In several instances, Will overcomes his anger and bitterness and offers aid to his enemies. "I have learned to do what God places in front of me, whatever it is."
Resounding through Caldwell's story is the incredible sense of purpose and community that sustains Will and Katherine through grinding hardship. "Again and again we were saved by the people we had come to help and carried through by the Lord we had come to serve," Will reminisces toward the end of his life.