Monday, November 01, 2010

City of Tranquil Light

City of Tranquil Light, Bo Caldwell’s second novel, is a beautiful story set in China just when that country was on the cusp of all the cultural shocks the rest of the 20th century would bring it. It is the story of two young Mennonites who were inspired to return to rural China with the charismatic minister who came to their communities seeking the funds and volunteers he needed to keep his mission there alive.

The saga begins in 1906 when a 21-year-old farmer from Oklahoma and a 22-year-old nurse from Cleveland decide to become foreign missionaries. For Katherine Friesen, the decision is a little easier than it is for Will Kiehn – Katherine’s sister is married to the charismatic young minister with whom she will be traveling to China. Will, on the other hand, has never known a life other than farming and he fears that he is unprepared for what is ahead. He is right about that. But no one could have been prepared for the lives he and Katherine will lead in a remote Chinese village for the better part of the next twenty-five years.

A few short years after their arrival, Katherine and Will have married and have started a mission of their own in the even more remote village of Kuang P’ing Ch’eng (the “City of Tranquil Light”). There, as their mission steadily grows, the couple overcome the initial distrust of the villagers and learn to deal with threats from bandits, invading armies, drought, and their own religious doubts. Katherine and Will Kiehn grow to love China and its people so deeply that, when forced to return to the United States for their own safety, they find the transition to life in California to be an unsettling one. Thankfully, they also find that their mission is not yet complete.

Some will say that City of Tranquil Light is at times over-sentimental, and perhaps it is, but it all works beautifully because of the remarkable characters involved. Caldwell based the book’s two main characters on her own grandparents (using their real surname) and, by alternating Will’s first person narrative with excerpts from Katherine’s diary, she uses both voices to tell their story. Surrounding the couple are memorable Chinese characters that, over time, come to consider the missionary couple as members of their own families. This fierce, two-way loyalty will allow Katherine and Will Kiehn to change countless lives even in a country as turbulent as the China of the first half of the 20th century.

City of Tranquil Light is an inspiring story about a simpler time during which, despite the great logistical challenges involved, one or two people could make a huge difference in the world. If only it were so simple today.

Rated at: 5.0

Review Copy provided by Publisher

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