I’m not a great reader of novels, but from time to time one catches me by surprise and entirely captivates me. Such a story is Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light. The California writer and former Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University has written a rich and engaging story about Mennonite missionaries in China just after the time of the Boxer Rebellion.
It reads like it might be the real story of a particular missionary couple and in a sense it is. Caldwell is the granddaughter of Mennonite missionaries Peter and Anna Schmidt Kiehn who worked in China and Taiwan from 1906–1961 and she had access to her grandfather’s memoirs. She also read Margaret Epp’s biography of Henry and Nellie Bartel as well as a biography of their son Paul and his wife Ina, alongside numerous other missionary accounts from China. So the novel grew out of memories within which Caldwell had steeped herself.
The novel follows the life paths of a young Mennonite farm boy, Will Kiehn, and a nurse, Katherine Friesen, both of whom respond to an appeal to join the Mennonite mission in north China. They are drawn to one another there and marry and then are sent to Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, the City of Tranquil Light.
The book tells a story of their life in China from 1906–1932. During those years, China was wracked by internal strife, often pillaged by warlords, hit by famine, and plagued by corrupt officials. Mission work tested its workers to the core.
Caldwell creates a vivid sense of the setting within these missionaries worked and the struggles they faced. They lived very simply, took in the sick, gathered orphans, and shared whatever they had. Even though what they wanted to see come about through their presence in China was utterly clear, the story is spare in its language about the message they preached or shared with the people of Kuang P’ing Ch’eng. Yet it pervades everything. How they gained the trust of the people and how a community of believers grew in that place forms the heart of the novel.
The book has one of the finest stories I’ve ever read anywhere of the meaning of forgiveness. (Spoiler to follow.) It involves Will’s capture by Hsiao Lao, an arrogant and pathologically cruel bandit chief, who stole the medicines destined for Will and Katherine that might have saved the life of their only child. Will is held captive by Hsiao Lao for a month to treat the chief’s injured son.
Some of the Prussian-Russian history that forms the backdrop for Will and Katherine’s story is incorrect (Caldwell has the Empress Catherine of Russia giving Mennonite settlers land along the Vistula River), but that does little to the book’s real story.
Caldwell has had essays published in O, The Oprah Magazine; the Washington Post Magazine; and America magazine; and stories in Story; Ploughshares; and Epoch. Her novel about the Mennonite missionaries is simple, engaging, and often deeply moving. It was wonderful to discover that a chapter in Mennonite missionary history could turn into something so rich and evocative.