Monday, October 4, 2010

Julie's Review: City of Tranquil Light

Summary: Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father) draws from the biographies of missionaries in northern China during the turbulent first half of the 20th century in this mixed second novel. It traces the story of two young, hopeful Midwesterners--shy, bright Oklahoma farmer Will Kiehn and brave Cleveland deaconess Katherine Friesen--as they journey to the brink of China's civil war in the isolated town of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng: the "City of Tranquil Light." In the unforgiving "land of naught," they live the joys and perils of missionary life, including famine, spiritual rejection, the dramatic 1926 rise of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, and the forcible, often violent, exile of fellow missionaries. Throughout the unrelenting hardship, the remarkably stable couple remain in China, bound to their newfound roots and to the ideals of their larger mission. At times this novel seems more about rhetoric than relationships--the couple's unwavering dedication to each other and their mission is unbelievable at times--but Katherine's diary entries are emotionally deft, capturing the romance and anxiety of cultural estrangement.

Review: I have seemed to have read my share of really great books this year and City of Tranquil Light is no exception. This story moved me in many different ways. I felt like I was part of Will and Katherine's story from the beginning to the end of; their courtship, mission and eventual departure of their adopted country.

The novel is written in two different perspectives, Will and Katherine. Will narrates the story but at different points we are given parts of Katherine's journal that coincide with the story Will is telling. This was a great way to get different insights into the characters. The story is reflective from Will's view point and then wraps up with Will being in his 80s.

The book is set in the early 1900's in Northern China during a time of great unrest and when many foreigners are seen as the devil. They are very cautious and suspicious of any outside especially those who are preaching a different belief system. Both Will and Katherine believe that is their calling to be missionaries in China and in this fact they never waiver. I can not fathom the things that they went through while serving in China for 27 years. They adapted to the culture and the people adopted them. In every way they were Chinese except by birth. They devoted themselves to the people and while they didn't have the same beliefs, they respected them.

For Will and Katherine it became that the US was the foreign country to them. They rarely came home and when they did things had changed so much that they felt out of touch.

While the book is chalked full of religion, I never felt that it became preachy. I think it preached exactly how Will did, through his actions. This book isn't so much about religion as it is about faith. Faith in people, faith in yourself, faith in your god. Will and Katherine were the kind of missionaries that I envision most being; good people who want to spread the word of God. They do so in a way that isn't over the top and makes people trust them. Will's character and belief in God is so strong that people turn their lives around because of him. They felt his God through him and wanted to be more like him.

I cried at several points in the novel. The one part that moved me to sob though was when Will and Katherine had to leave China due to political unrest and the realization that it wasn't for their safety but the safety of the people they have come to know and truly love. These people were their family. Family isn't necessarily whom you are born into but those people who know you the best and love you just the same.

For fans of historical fiction, this is a gem. For fans of Lisa See, this book is on par with her books but shows China in a different light, more remote areas than urban. This book is powerful, gorgeous and stellar on so many levels. I love that is also based on real people. People who did this kind of work and did it with little complaints.

My only complaint is that I wish we would have found out in the end what happened to all the people in the church who were left behind by the Kiehn's. I would have loved to have known the ending to their stories; happy or not.

Final Take: 4.75/5



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