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, ...