A missionary family is trapped by the invading Imperial Japanese Army in the "hard and disastrous land" that’s northern China, 1937.
Shirley Carson’s husband, Caleb, died in a mudslide while assisting resistance fighters. She grieves, leaving teenage son Charles to fend for himself. Caleb (appearing in a surprising narrative thread) and Shirley connect their humanitarian beliefs—"Humans are inherently good and cooperative"—with the lure of the communist ideal, but they’re oblivious: "there is much you do not know and much you will never know," a Chinese friend tells Charles, and the same applies to his parents. A Japanese attack spurs Shirley, once a nurse, to passionate action: she turns her home into a clinic, even treating revolutionary soldiers at the behest of Capt. Hsu, a man she admires as an exemplar of the Red Army. While Charles plans to return to America, Shirley wants to join the revolutionaries. Even as Charles sees Chinese friends turn away or reject him—"No more foreign devils here!"—Shirley becomes further entangled with the revolutionaries until she’s forced to make a not-quite Sophie’s Choice but one that leaves her morally bereft. Unfortunately, Pye’s (River of Dust, 2013) portrait of Charles grants him resolution and insight beyond teenage capacity. Pye’s other characterizations flex, grow, and live: the amah Lian, whose silent sacrifices sustain the oblivious Carsons; the Japanese commandant, Gen. Shiga, his silver flask a Princeton ’15 memento; Dao-Ming, a seemingly simple servant girl; and Kathryn, a dilettante teacher, who each stand as metaphor for the chasm of misperceptions.
There’s a comparison to Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but this unflinching look at a brutal era in a faraway place shares truth in its own way.