In 1906, Mennonite missionaries move to China to proselytize through providing health care and food. A farmer’s boy from the Midwest and a young nurse, they marry and spend the better part of their lives suffering with, and becoming close to, their adopted Chinese community.
After a visit by a charismatic minister, Will Kiehn feels called upon to carry the word of God to China. There he meets Katherine and after a brief and initially chilly, then suddenly cordial courtship, they marry and are sent off to start a mission in the remote city of Kuang P’ing Ch’eng (aka “The City of Tranquil Light”). The intrepid couple produces a child, experiences run-ins with bandits and faces perilous xenophobia, all while maintaining an outpost that, along with Christianity, dispenses medical help, famine relief and housing for the displaced. What transformations of character there are remain insufficiently explained; for example, there’s the miraculous conversion of a notorious bandit into a good man, a radical change brought about, it seems, by his witnessing Will’s faith-fortified calm in the face of danger. The impression of there being real stakes is constantly thwarted by the endless reserves of faith in these missionaries’ hearts. Too easily, they overcome obstacles through unswerving dedication and a Zen-like relinquishment of their hearts and minds to Christ. In accomplished but bland, sometimes academically rigid prose, Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father, 2001) draws her story from the lives of her grandparents, exploring, to some extent, Mennonite religion and history. But her characters lack substantial development. They mourn their losses and narrate their hopes and dreams, while forever seeming to float above their surroundings.
The lack of any real transformation and pervasive, single-minded religiosity make for a dull story.