Bo Caldwell’s 2001 debut novel, The Distant Land of My Father, set in historic China and based on the story of her uncle, was a critical and commercial success—a national bestseller that was loved by critics, booksellers, and readers in equal measure. In 2002 Caldwell turned to the story of her maternal grandparents who were missionaries in China in the early 1900s. For years her mother had urged her to write about them and when she dove into the research she found their lives full of conflict, danger, and heartbreak, as well as joy and fulfillment. But life, in the form of a cancer diagnosis, kept her from her writing desk until 2006. When she returned, she completed City of Tranquil Light (Henry Holt and Company), a searing love story of a man and a woman, their God, and the country they jointly loved and a deeply researched and page-turning portrait of a country in utter turmoil.
At the center of the novel are Will and Katherine, two Mennonite missionaries from the heartland who have come to China because they feel called by God to serve the poor and spread the Good News. But this is more than a missionary story; it is really the portrait of a marriage set against the backdrop of a radically shifting nation that is plunging into revolution.
A novel based on her grandparents wasn’t Caldwell’s idea. “I’m embarrassed to say that before I had dismissed my grandparents’ lives as too dull and simplistic. But as I reread my grandfather’s memoir and began to ask my mom about my grandparents, I learned how wrong I’d been.” As she began to see her grandparents as her mother had seen them, and to read the biographies and autobiographies of other American missionaries in China, Caldwell found similar stories. “I saw a pattern emerge in the later lives of many of these men and women. Most eventually returned to the United States, usually to be near their children (now grown) and grandchildren, but also because of illness or frailty. I was moved by the contrast between their lives in China and their later lives in the U.S. After enduring decades of war, famine, illness, personal danger, and great hostility toward their work, these people settled safely in the suburbs where they walked in rose gardens and played with their grandchildren and lived out their days. I was struck by the sacrifice that must have been involved in leaving the people and work that had been at the center of their lives, even with the reward of the comforts of modern life. I also began to feel that missionaries often get a bad rap in fiction. While there were certainly those who exploited the people they had come to serve, there were also many who poured out their lives for strangers and for their faith. And I wanted to tell their story.”
That story is one of marriage, of leaving one home and finding another, and of faith. “When I began the novel, I tried to understand my grandfather’s faith and to present it accurately,” says Caldwell. “I tried to see the world through his eyes.” Then life intervened, including a battle to quit drinking followed shortly after with a diagnosis of breast cancer. Once Caldwell returned to writing two years later, she returned as a different person. The combination of sobriety and a serious illness had affected her faith deeply, and she was no longer writing about her grandparents’ faith. She was writing about her own.
I excitedly said yes to this book tour because I have very good Mennonite friends who are right now missionaries in China. So it intrgued me to read a novel based on the author's own grandparents and other missionaries to China. The story is breathtaking, taking you through the life of a young man in the early 1900's who said yes to the appeal of another missionary visiting his church, to come to China and yes to the call of God. On the way there Will meets Katherine, a nurse, who is also going to China to serve the people. Katherine and Will take turns telling their story, Will through a narrative and Katherine through journal entries. The story spans their life together as husband and wife ministering to the people in the city of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng -City of Tranquil Light. Tested spiritually, mentally and physically, they rise to the daily challenges of the time: poverty, bandits, warlords, changing governments and a people who don't trust them.
The story is beautiful and heartbreaking, challenging and eye opening, historical yet relevant for today. Not only do we get a glimpse into the life of a missionary as they totally lay their lives down for a people, but we get a peek into how all the hardships and the joys affects personal faith and marriage against the backdrop of early 19th century China. I don't think you have to want to be a missionary to be touched by this story.
Thanks to B&B Media Group for providing a free copy for review.
You can go here to purchase a copy of City of Tranquil Light.