Tuesday, November 16, 2010

City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

The Chinese Christian church is rapidly expanding in modern China despite oppression and sometimes persecution by the Chinese government. At a conference a couple of years ago I heard a Chinese woman pastor speak movingly about the trials and triumphs of the church in her country.

When I was offered a review copy of City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell, a novel about missionaries in China in the early twentieth century, I was intrigued and agreed to read it.

The novel is a fictionalized account of the story of the author's Mennonite missionary grandparents who spent many years in China. Caldwell's grandfather self-published a book about his experiences for his family and she uses that material as well as letters and diaries from other relatives who also served in that mission field during the pre-WWII era. Although none of these sources are ever directly quoted in the novel, it is clear that the flavor of that time and place seem to be accurately depicted by the author. I would have liked to read her grandfather's account.

The novel is in the form of a memoir told by the aging Will Kiehn as he looks back on his work in China alternating with the diary of his wife, Katherine, a missionary nurse. or "deaconess". Their struggles with learning the language and the culture of the people, the privations and joys of their work, and personal tragedy are set in the historical context of the civil war in China. 

There is much to like about the novel. It is gentle in tone and reflects the pacifistic, loving theology of the Mennonite missionaries. Will Kiehn is a well-defined character with flaws as well as virtues. Katherine is not nearly so well drawn, but her diary provides a different, but complimentary viewpoint to Will. The destruction of the Chinese civil war is accurately depicted, well written,  and is an important theme of the book.

My criticism of the book is that, with the exception of the Bandit King, none of the other characters--American or Chinese--are fully realized. The author tells us that the Kiehns came to deeply love the Chinese people and nation but never shows us why and how that came to be. Even the converts who are closest to the Kiehns are little more than names.

That said, I did enjoy reading City of Tranquil Light. I am in awe of these missionaries--and the others around the world--who left the familiarity and comfort of their home countries to follow Christ by bringing the gospel to others. It's not something I can ever imagine doing.