Bay Area author Bo Caldwell illuminates the harrowing lives of missionaries in pre-Communist Revolution China
Having personal experience with missionaries—my sister is currently a missionary in Taiwan—I have an understanding of both the risks and rewards that a life devoted to serving others entails. Spiritual rejection, sleepless nights and lack of funds are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to challenges that must be daily faced. However, to see the smiling faces of those who would have otherwise remained hungry or sick without receiving assistance is a reward, I’m told, that far outweighs even the most difficult hurdle. So when I saw that Bo Caldwell’s newly released novel, “City of Tranquil Light,” is a tale of missionaries serving in China, I was immediately drawn in. Luminous, heart wrenching and intricately detailed, the novel—told through the eyes of both Will and Katherine Keihn—is based loosely on the author’s real life grandparents as well as on other early missionaries to China.
To leave one’s own country and travel halfway around the world—particularly during a time when travel took weeks, not days—was a colossal undertaking; one that Will Kiehn did not take lightly. As an immigrant farmer’s son living in the heartland of America, Will did not expect that he would ever leave the family farm, let alone the country. But when a traveling missionary visited the family’s country church and told of the great need for Americans to serve in China, Will experienced a profound change of heart. “I felt a presence that seemed to surround me and pursue me at the same time, a presence that I knew was God, and I had the sense that I was deeply loved and cared for. I had been told of this love since I was small, but on that morning it seemed to move from my head into my heart; knowledge became belief.” And with that indelible message from above, Will sets out on his remarkable journey to China.
The trip is a long and arduous one, but during it Will meets a fellow missionary, Katherine, who will become his future wife. Together they forge a life for themselves as well as an outpost for the Mennonite church in Kuang P’ing Ch’eng (translated to City of Tranquil Light and thus the book’s moniker), a poor city on the Northern China plain. As the couple struggles to integrate into the Chinese way of life—learning the language and customs, living in squalid conditions and adjusting to strange new delicacies—they are determined to begin the tasks they set out to do such as heal the sick, feed the hungry, build an orphanage and spread the Good News of their God to the Chinese people. Despite suffering a devastating personal loss, prolonged famine, earthquakes, Will’s abduction by bandits and a terrifying civil war—practically every hardship a human being can suffer—the Kiehn’s endured and continued to stay true to their original mission.
“City of Tranquil Light” is more than just a tale of missionaries; it is a love story that spans nearly six decades. The love between Will and Katherine, the couple’s joint love for China and its people, and the love the villagers harbor for the missionary couple illuminates an unrelenting interconnectedness of faith.
Even for those who don’t associate themselves with the Christian faith, one cannot deny that the missionaries portrayed in “City of Tranquil Light” rendered countless acts of kindness to the Chinese people they encountered by means of medicine, education and nutrition. True, the long-winded prayers and religious jargon Caldwell uses can be cloying at times, but add a heartfelt dimension to the characters’ depth of faith.
When Communist rule pervaded and missionaries were finally forced to leave China, Mo Yun, one of the Kiehn’s best Chinese friends said to the couple upon their departure from Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, “When you leave a place you love, you leave a piece of your heart. But you take with you the hearts of your beloved.” As I read the last page of this dazzling story, I too felt as though I left a piece of my heart in the book—in a historical China visited now only through the eyes of Bo Caldwell and my imagination.
Bo Caldwell will be reading from her new book, “City of Tranquil Light” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28 at the Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call Capitola Book Café at 462-4415 or visit capitolabookcafe.com.