I've reached out my hand to the BEA plunder box (yes, they're still in the box, okay? Where am I supposed to put them?) again and emerged with City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. Once upon a time, many years ago I read Caldwell's other novel, The Distant Land of My Fathers, and while I don't remember loving it, I remembered liking it and that it left several intact images of 1930s Shanghai lodged in my brain that have ultimately led me to read other books about that time period in Shanghai. With this in mind, it didn't take much of a great leap to know that this book about American missionaries in China during the early 1900s might tickle my fancy, so I lurked by Macmillan's Book Expo America booth at the appointed time and snagged myself a copy. I expected that I'd probably like it, but little did I know that I was stuffing a copy of what would likely be one of my favorite reads, possibly my favorite read of the year, into that overflowing tote bag.
I loved this book in so many ways that it's actually difficult to review. It's difficult to separate the many ways it dug into my own thoughts and ideas and beliefs and touched me emotionally from its value as a book if you're, uhm, well, not me. Nevertheless, I shall try and hopefully convey to you what's so great about this book.
City of Tranquil Light is the story of young Will Kiehn, who, growing up as a Mennonite and a farmer in Oklahoma, hears the unmistakable call of God to serve as a missionary in, of all places, China. It's not something he wants to do or something he's even qualified for, but he can't shake that feeling that the God he loves and knows loves him wants him to go to China. Dreamy, clumsy, and homesick, 21-year-old Will is, at first, terribly ill-suited to his calling, but his mentor, Edward, and Edward's young sister-in-law Katherine, who travels to China for the first time at the same time that Will does, soon see a change being worked in him. Katherine, a nurse, has almost happily abandoned life in the U.S. to serve the Chinese who suffer from many ailments and also suffer from the traditional cures for those ailments. As she and Will work together under Edward and his wife Naomi's tutelage, to help and to share the Gospel with the local Chinese, Will and Katherine find that they are falling in love.
Before long, Katherine and Will are married and embarking on their own journey of mission work together. When they arrive in Kuang P'ing Ch'eng, the City of Tranquil Light, Katherine and Will don't know a soul and only have tenuous grasp on the local culture. Soon, Will is nervously preaching his first sermon to a crowd of Chinese, and Katherine is opening a makeshift clinic to help the sick. Little do they realize that the people with whom they are sharing their faith, will bless them richly as well. City of Tranquil Light is the story of how Will and Katherine become a part of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng's community told in both point of views, with Will's narration coming from his last years as he reflects upon his life and Katherine's view from journal entries written throughout their life in China. Theirs is a story rife with the heartbreaks of living in an inhospitable environment constantly troubled by famine, bandits, and war. It's also a story filled with the joy of seeing God's promises kept to a couple who often has only their faith to sustain them. It's a bittersweet story of missionaries who come to learn that even while they seek to serve their Chinese neighbors, their neighbors have much to offer them as well.
City of Tranquil Light is fiction's answer to all those kooky, ultimately harmful Christians/Christian missionaries found in life and in books who judge, exploit, and damage the people they should be helping, who force their beliefs down the throats of all without regard to their cultures or their everyday circumstances. The Christian faith displayed in Katherine and Will is real, and it's beautiful. It's marked by love and self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Instead of trying to force those around them to change, they focus on helping them, building lasting relationships with them, and freely sharing the faith and the God that sustains them. Katherine and Will's is a relationship that deepens and blossoms as they face the trials of life in China together, and their love story is heartrending. They love each other, they love their God, and the lives they lead speak of God even louder than the words that Will gladly preaches. Of course, their life isn't all sunshine and rainbows, and Katherine and Will and their growing congregation face often unbearable suffering, and crises of faith soon follow, but ultimately their passion for God, His promises and His faithfulness, never allow them to fall.
Bo Caldwell writes in the introduction (in the ARC, at least) that City of Tranquil Light is a novel based on the lives of her own grandparents who served as missionaries in China and Taiwan for many years, a story she always thought would be too dull to be worth telling. Thankfully, she changed her mind, and what results is an honest, genuine but never preachy, cheesy or overblown story of people who gave their lives to the work of spreading the Gospel in the vast mission field of China. It is anything but dull. It is a profoundly moving love letter of faith about a God who is always at work even if it is behind the scenes.
This book has plenty of merit for the Christian and the non-Christian. It's full of memorable characters that you can easily come to care about. It's a detailed rendering of historical China complete with well-researched cultural details. It's a realistic love story and even has elements of suspense as dangerous situations crop up. That said, for a Christian, this book is that much more powerful. I wept more than once at God's grace to these characters and displayed by these characters as well as the love they received in return - grace that I have seen in my own life and in the lives of my friends in one way or another. It accurately and heartbreakingly portrays struggles with faith and unbelief that plague even the most devout, well-meaning believer. It's a beautiful story of God and His faithfulness to His people who He loves beyond reason and sent His Son to save, and by the end I felt blessed for having read it.
Absolutely among my favorite reads this year (and probably beyond!).