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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

City of Tranquil Light - Bo Caldwell This novel tells the story of a couple who served as Christian missionaries in China from 1906 to 1933. It portrays their story with a sympathetic and positive slant. This is in contrast to prevailing anthropologic thinking that missionaries often served as agents of western colonial interests. The story in this book is of missionaries who honor and appreciate local culture and customs. They dress as locals, adopt Chinese names for themselves and learn the language. Furthermore, they provide much needed medical services and child orphanage during times of war and famine.

The book is based upon the lives of the author's maternal grandparents who served as missionaries to China representing the Mennonite Brethren Church, and later (unlike this book) in Taiwan for the Nazarene Church. The story is probably best appreciated by accepting it as an interesting story and not worrying too much about what parts of the narrative are fictional. I probably ruined the story for myself by initially accepting the book as historical fiction. Many parts of the book do qualify as historical fiction. But some portions of the central plot that are too contrived for me to give it that classification. In particular, the interweaving of the missionary lives with that of a bandit chief were too coincidental and physically impossible for me to believe. I know that there were numerous bandit chiefs and local war lords in China during this era, much as described in this book. But as told in this book, though it makes for interesting reading, has the ring of fiction about it.

This interview with the author notes that her grandparents had five children--one of whom was her mother. The missionaries described in this book had only one child who died at one year of age. Her grandparents lived in five different cities in China, whereas the characters in this book stayed in one place. Her grandparents worked in Taiwan after the Communists forced them to leave and lived there until 1961. The couple in this book returned to and stayed in the USA after 1933. I don't mention these things here as critisism of the author. These changes made it a better novel. I'm only demonstrating how I would have probably enjoyed the story more if I had not worried so much about which parts were historically true.

Readers who believe in the life changing power of the Christian message will love this book as a glorious example of dedication and faith in action. Those of a more secular orientation can still appreciate the story, but perhaps not be as emotionally moved by the spiritual aspects of the story. Some subtle examples of Christian theology in action that I noticed in this book included:
1. Turning the other cheek: Assistance is given to the Bandit Chief even though he was indirectly responsible for their daughter's death.
2. Give one's life for another: A person volunteers to be executed by the Kuomintang invaders in lieu of the missionaries.
3. Earthquake allows prisoners to escape: Sort of reminded me of a similar incident in the life of the Apostle Paul.
4. Food mysteriously appears when needed: A la five loaves and two fish.

The author did a good job of conveying the deeply felt emotions felt by the couple upon the death of their daughter and the sorrow of saying goodby to their friends of the past 27 years when they left China. Also, the deeply felt love between the husband and wife are very effectively communicated in the writing by the author as well as the painful feelings of loss experienced by the husband after his wife's death. Their emotional attachment to their memories of life in China is described eloquently.

Their changed perceptions of China are described in the following quotation as they are leaving their Chinese home for the final time:
"We passed our compound on the right, and the farther away we got, the more my heart seemed to tear. The road turned sharply south and I strained to see our home one last time. Then I saw the city wall, just as I had seen it hundreds of times when I returned from every possible direction, at every odd hour of the day or night. I remembered the first day we had come to Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, and how its name had led me to expect a graceful city bathed in a gentle glow. It had not appeared like that at first sight so long ago, but as I looked back for the last time, that was exactly how it looked: beautiful, and filled with grace."

This book covers the same time period as Pearl Bock's famous 1931 classic "The Good Earth." Coincidentally, my PageADay Book Lover's Calendar for 9/12/12 featured The Good Earth while I was reading this book. So I decided to include the PageADay's review here.

A bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner, The Good Earth is a searing, unforgettable saga of a family’s struggle to succeed. Wang Lung works furiously his whole life to achieve his dream: ownership of a piece of land. Will he pull it off in the harsh conditions of rural China? And will his bickering sons understand that the land is everything? The setting is far away in space and time, but Wang Lung’s setbacks and triumphs feel close to home.
Pearl S. Buck grew up in China, the daughter of missionary parents. Read her fascinating life story in Pearl Buck in China: Journey to “The Good Earth,” by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010).
THE GOOD EARTH , by Pearl S. Buck (1931; Pocket Books, 2005)