Summer reading is a very special type of experience because it often takes places out of doors, on a beach or a porch swing. Often we allow ourselves a larger allocation of time to read during this season, giving ourselves a little break from the hard work ethic of the school year and the full calendar of goals and achievements.
So that means we need some rich reading options and I have one to recommend: City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell, first published in 2010. I blogged on this novel eighteen months ago, but if you missed it here is another chance.
A former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, Bo Caldwell demonstrates her ability to provide a fulfilling sensory experience as she recreates a slice of place and time in early twentieth-century China. The two thousand-year-old dynasty is crumbling and civil war rocks the county. Into this turmoil steps a set of unmarried mid-western Mennonite missionaries, Will and Katherine, who are each determined to give their skills and their hearts to the people of China.
They are the good kind of missionaries with the respect for their adopted country that is the foundation of true service: “Katherine, there are practices in this country that you will dislike, I assure you. But some of these we must accept as they are. We are here to offer the gift of faith, not to remake their way of life, even when the change seems necessary and right. It is a question of choosing your battles. Remember that we are guests, and uninvited ones at that.” (Will Kiehn)
Caldwell thoroughly researched the history of her grandparents’ lives as missionaries, as well as this historical period in China, and that background gives this fictional story a realism in its setting and a high level of tragedy in its plot line.
Poignantly, Caldwell describes the resultant suffering as the Communists defeat the Imperial government. Will and Katherine marry and then align wholeheartedly with their Chinese friends to endure this troubled period in an ancient and beautiful land. The opening chapters detail the couple’s initial meeting, but the majority of the book takes place as they walk out their married life together.
In my opinion, this novel satisfies the avid historical fiction reader, the romantic, those who love beautiful prose, and the reader searching for an inspirational story. In the novel, Will reflects on his long life “When I was twenty-one and on my way to China, I tried to envision my life there. I saw myself preaching to huge gatherings of people, baptizing eager new converts, working with my brothers in Christ to improve their lives. I did not foresee the hardships and dangers that lay ahead: the loss of one so precious, the slow and painful deprivation of drought and famine, the continual peril of violence, the devastation of war, the threat to my own dear wife. Again and again we were saved by the people we came to help and carried through by the Lord we had come to serve. I am amazed at His faithfulness; even now our lives there fill me with awe.” (p. 9)