Friday, October 22, 2010
City of Tranquil Light
Bo Caldwell is a novelist whose work was not familiar to me before I read "City of Tranquil Light." It is based on the experiences of her grandparents, who were Mennonite missionaries in China in the early part of the last century. I think that the subject matter itself is a hard row to hoe. I write about God a lot myself, but not about devout people. It's extremely difficult to make them come to life.
Caldwell draws full, believable characters of the two missionaries, Will Kiehn and Katherine Freisen, and sets them in an initially unknown land, China. The novel is eminently readable. I wish that I felt that more of the emotional scenes landed with as much weight as they should. There are two that do. Will has a difficult time adjusting to his posting, so much so that he becomes ill. When his superior comes to see him "he had only to look at me before murmuring the German word that had been in my mind for many days: 'Heimweh,' he said. Homesick." That passage landed on me like a punch in the stomach.
The other scene also involves Will. He is traveling on foot, alone, having left Katherine at home at their mission. He finds a tree to rest under; which is no small feat, trees being rare in China. There is a pond by the tree, and he sees objects that look like bundles of clothes scattered around. They are the bodies of girl babies that were more impact on me that most of the rest of the novel. It's truly arresting, and Caldwell's style serves the scene perfectly. She is a talented writer.
Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the book from Henry Holt & Co.