I’ve had City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell on my TBR list for a while now, at least ever since seeing Sherry’s review. When I needed a new audiobook to listen to and had finished my Classics challenge, I was reminded of this book.
Though the story is loosely based on the author’s grandparents, it is fiction and incorporates elements from other people’s lives as well. It’s told in the first person from Will’s point of view, interspersed with sections from Katherine’s journal.
Will Kiehn was the son of a Mennonite farmer in Oklahoma in the early 1900s whose only plan was to continue the farming he loved. But when he was twenty-one, a friend of the family who was a missionary to China came through, visiting various churches on furlough. When he preached, Will felt “found out” and could hardly speak at dinner. When their guest, Edward, spoke of China at their table, he “could not look away.” When asked if he might consider going to China, Will’s siblings laughed because he “was the least likely to leave,” not good at public speaking, “quiet and shy” and “not a good student.” He felt he hadn’t “‘any training or gifts of that kind.’ Edward said, ‘The Giver of those gifts may feel otherwise…A torch’s one qualification is that it be fitted to the master’s hand. God’s chosen are often not talented or wise or gifted as the world judges. Our Lord sees what is inside and that is why He calls whom He does.'”
Will wrestled with these truths for a few days and finally surrendered. “Despite the fact that it would mean leaving what I loved most in the world, I felt not the sadness and dread I had expected but a sense of freedom and release. The tightness in me loosened like a cut cord, and I was joyful.”
He was so green that when he set out to return with Edward a few weeks later, he had given no thought at all to finances. His mother foresaw that and gave him traveling funds. There was no deputation: I assume the mission paid missionaries’ salaries.
A few other recruits sailed with Will and Edward, among them Edward’s sister-in-law, Katherine. She only saw Will as a boy, “clumsy,” “awkward,” and “bothersome,” but her brother-in-law’s excitement about him “makes me believe there must be more to this Will than I can see.” On the voyage and then during their first months in China, they began to appreciate qualities about each other, and their love story is tenderly told.
After they marry, they travel to Kuang P’ing Ch’eng— City of Tranquil Light — to start a church. Theirs is not a story of giant super-heroes of the faith, but of quiet, ordinary people faithfully walking with God and working with Him, people with whom most readers could relate. The story of their first convert, his wife’s eventual coming to faith, and the birth and loss of their daughter, are all touchingly told. The beginning and growth of the church, laboring against superstition and anti-foreign sentiment, trials of bandits, famine, civil war, and the influx of Communism draw them close to the people and city they love.
A few standout quotes:
After the loss of their child and during a time her husband is missing, Katherine writes, “My faith feels tattered and threadbare and I am ashamed. What good is it if it does not see me through pain? But a scrap of faith is better than nothing, so I cling to it tightly.”
“I find myself questioning my Lord’s ways; I do not understand why He would place a longing in my heart that He doesn’t plan to fulfill. But whys don’t get me anywhere; they just lead me around in circles. So I pray I can accept this painful lack, and if my prayers are half-hearted, I know they are still heard” (pp. 157-158).
During famine, Will is asked:
“Why do you stay with us here when you could so easily go to your home and eat your fill?”
“My home is here. And if my belly were full but my heart empty, what would I gain?”
“Ah,” he said. “It is a marvel nonetheless for a foreign-born to endure our pain” (p. 166).
In an encounter with an enemy solider:
“You preach the man Jesus, do you not?”
“Are you not aware that what is well suited to you may be ill adapted to others?”
“I am…but it is not a question of what is suited to me. It is a question of obeying my God and passing on what has been given to me. I would be remiss if I kept it to myself.”
“You believe it is your duty to impose that truth on other nations?”
“Not to impose it, sir, like a law. To share it like a gift, freely given” (p. 202).
Though fiction, the book rings true with other missionary stories I’ve read from the era, especially Rosalind Goforth’s Goforth of China and Climbing, even to describing how the curiosity of the people at first led them to wet their fingers and touch the paper windows, making a peephole through which they could observe the foreigners and their strange ways.
Not long ago I came upon the term “quiet fiction” – Jan Karon’s Mitford books would be an example. It’s not that there are no climaxes or suspense or tension or emotions: there are plenty. But the purpose of the story is the relationships, not razzle-dazzle plot twists. I think that term describes this book as well. The audiobook I listened to was nicely read by Bronson Pinchot, who echoed the quietness of the narration. I checked out a hardback copy from the library to reread certain spots.
I wouldn’t agree with every little point in the book theologically, but I think I would on the bigger issues. I loved the story: I loved how it was related: I am going to miss Will, Katherine, Chung Hao, Mo Yun, and Hsiao Lao.
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)