Though I’m not a very religious person I don’t shy away from books that have a religious theme as long as the author discloses it openly from the start. What I don’t like is when the topic broadsides you; the author slipping in the religion like one of those proselytizers that catch you unawares by starting a conversation and you slowly realize that they’re making more and more references to a higher being. Ah, I think, I’m being witnessed to and I just thought I was having a pleasant chat with someone. I end up feeling duped. The City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell is a book with religion as a central theme but the reader knows it right away. And it in no way takes anything away from a very beautiful story.
Elderly Will Kiehn looks back on his life and recounts his time as a missionary in China along with his wife, Katherine. As missionaries, preaching is not the only work they do; practicing medicine, feeding, housing and teaching are all tasks that they set for themselves. They share much joy, but also anguish and sometimes great fear. Based on the lives of the author’s grandparents, this book is a wonderful tribute to an otherwise forgotten group. We don’t have missionaries like these anymore: with little funding or support from home they managed to thrive.
This was the right time for me to read this book. I’ve been reading some YA fiction, science fiction and other general ‘light’ fiction since those genres were what I’ve been in the mood for lately. Only when I started reading The City of Tranquil Light did I realize how much I’ve missed more serious fiction. The story, alternating between Will’s narrative and Katherine’s journals, is smoothly written. The characters leap off the pages and I was so swept up in the action I found it hard to put down. There were a number of times I found myself relating to Katherine as in this passage from page 146:
At times my fear overwhelms me. Last night I woke in the dark and the panic seemed unbearable. All sorts of horrible possibilities presented themselves in my mind, fantasies that I would not entertain in the daytime but that took hold of me in the dark of our bedroom and seemed completely real.
The author treats the Chinese culture with honesty and respect and I could easily picture the images that were conveyed. The only issue I had with this book was that there were no maps. I think it may have been helpful had there been two, one showing the travel route that took them from America to China and perhaps an inset of the regions in China that the characters traveled, and a second map of the city, (Kuang P’ing Ch’eng) they lived in for so many years. I highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoyed Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie or The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine.