City of Tranquil Lightby Bo Caldwell
"What ardent, dazzling souls emerge from these American missionaries in China . . . A beautiful, searing book that leaves an indelible presence in the mind." —Patricia Hampl, author of The Florist's Daughter
Will Kiehn is seemingly destined for life as a humble farmer in the Midwest when, having felt a call from God, he travels to the vast/b>/i>
"What ardent, dazzling souls emerge from these American missionaries in China . . . A beautiful, searing book that leaves an indelible presence in the mind." —Patricia Hampl, author of The Florist's Daughter
Will Kiehn is seemingly destined for life as a humble farmer in the Midwest when, having felt a call from God, he travels to the vast North China Plain in the early twentieth-century. There he is surprised by love and weds a strong and determined fellow missionary, Katherine. They soon find themselves witnesses to the crumbling of a more than two-thousand-year-old dynasty that plunges the country into decades of civil war. As the couple works to improve the lives of the people of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng— City of Tranquil Light, a place they come to love—and face incredible hardship, will their faith and relationship be enough to sustain them?
Told through Will and Katherine's alternating viewpoints—and inspired by the lives of the author's maternal grandparents—City of Tranquil Light is a tender and elegiac portrait of a young marriage set against the backdrop of the shifting face of a beautiful but torn nation. A deeply spiritual book, it shows how those who work to teach others often have the most to learn, and is further evidence that Bo Caldwell writes "vividly and with great historical perspective" (San Jose Mercury News).
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.
“Deceptively quiet, this portrait of a couple in love with each other, their work, and their adopted country explores the deepest questions of faith while richly illuminating a lost time and place.” Andrea Barrett, author of The Air We Breathe
“City of Tranquil Light is just my kind of book. It is full of light, even at its darkest moments. I relished the hours spent with this dedicated and intrepid couple and will not soon forget them. Bo Caldwell has honored her missionary grandparents with her storytelling skills.” Gail Godwin, author of Unfinished Desires and Evensong
“What ardent, dazzling souls emerge from these American missionaries in China. Two great lovers hand their story back and forth, the husband writing from widowed old age, the wife speaking from the immediacy of a diary she kept during their decades in pre-Revolutionary China.... A beautiful, searing book that leaves an indelible presence in the mind.” Patricia Hampl, author of The Florist's Daughter
“A handful of books each year convince me of their firm grip on what, for want of a better word, I would call truth. Bo Caldwell has seized on this material, based on the experience of her grandparents, and somehow conjured a miraculous story, one full of passion, historical interest, and spiritual questing. The North China Plain is vividly evoked, and the main characters, Will and Katherine, will not easily be forgotten. City of Tranquil Light is a poem in prose form, and it will lift any reader's spirit as it lifted mine.” Jay Parini, author of The Last Station
“City of Tranquil Light is a remarkable evocation of another time and place as well as a deeply moving love story, but, most of all, Bo Caldwell's book is a profound meditation on the mysteries of belief. This novel is one that will linger in the reader's mind long after the last page is turned.” Ron Rash, author of Serena
“It is inspired, a beautifully written, often riveting, heatbreaking, heart-healing, wise and sweet-tempered novel.” America Magazine
“City of Tranquil Light is just my kind of book. It is full of light, even at its darkest moments. I relished the hours spent with this dedicated and intrepid couple and will not soon forget them. Bo Caldwell has honored her missionary grandparents with her storytelling skills.” Gail Godwin, author of Unfinished Desires and Evensong
“Bo Caldwell’s Will and Katherine Kiehn’s. . . quiet faith, love of their adopted country, and devotion to each other will stir all but the most callous readers. . . . The two books that came to my mind most often when reading this one were Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead. . . . Joseph Conrad and Barbara Kingsolver took us to the heart of darkness. Bo Caldwell arouses the hope, even the conviction, that beyond darkness of all kinds lies a heavenly citya city of tranquil light.” Shirley Showalter, Christian Century
“Throughout the unrelenting hardship, the remarkably stable couple remains in China, bound to their newfound roots and to the ideals of their larger mission. . . Katherine's diary entries are emotionally deft, capturing the romance and anxiety of cultural estrangement.” Publishers Weekly
“A tale of enduring love between this couple, their love for China and its people, and their love for their God.” Library Journal
“Luminous, heart wrenching and intricately detailed” Santa Cruz Good Times
“. . . plainspoken and tender . . . makes for a lovely sustained chant.” San Francisco Chronicle
“A luminous slice of place and time. . . a sensory experience. . . Historical fiction fans, those who appreciate missionary stories, and those who enjoy a good novel will find City of Tranquil Light an absorbing, engaging read.” Christianity Today
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.96(w) x 11.28(h) x 1.02(d)
Read an Excerpt
Suppose it is an autumn day, fine and clear and cool. Late afternoon, when the sun nears the horizon and turns the sky into a watercolor of pastels. It is beautiful, as though God is showing off. As you approach the city you first see its wall, an immense gray brick structure that is as solid as it is imposing, nearly as wide as it is high, some thirty feet. If you are coming from the east, it will be in sharp silhouette against the lovely changing sky. Near the city the air begins to smell of smoke, but mostly it has the sweet, clean scent of the ripening winter wheat in the surrounding fields.
From a distance the city may not look like much; only that dark wall is visible, and what can that tell you? Some say the cities in the North China Plain are by and large alike, one indistinguishable from another; to them this one might look like any other. But it is not; I can testify to this, for it is the place on this earth that I love the most, the city in which my wife and I lived for nearly twenty-five years among beggars and bandits and farmers and scholars and peasants, people whom we deeply loved. The name of the city is Kuang P'ing Ch'eng—City of Tranquil Light—and although I now reside in southern California and have for many years, that faraway place remains my home.
And it is often in my thoughts. Above my bed hang three Chinese scrolls depicting New Testament scenes, painted by our most improbable convert and given to me when we left China. In the first, the prodigal son kneels at his father's feet as the father rests his hands on the young man's head. The son's pigtail is disheveled and his blue peasant's tunic and trousers are dirty and torn, while the father's violet silk robe is immaculate. In the second, an oriental woman lovingly washes our Lord's feet with her tears and dries them with her long black hair, her own bound feet tucked beneath her, and in the third, a slight but sturdy Zacchaeus, wearing a gray scholar's robe and with his long braided queue hanging down his back, climbs a persimmon tree for a glimpse of Yeh-Su, Jesus. A Chinese lantern of bright red silk—red is the color of happiness—hangs over my writing table, and a small carved chest made of camphor wood holds my woolen sweaters. My Chinese New Testament, its spine soft and its pages worn, sits on the table by my reading chair, with a strip of faded red paper, a calling card given to me long ago, marking my place. I still read the Scriptures in Chinese; I find I am more at home in it than I am in English, just as my Chinese name, Kung P'ei Te, given to me at the beginning of this century, seems more a part of me than my legal name, Will Kiehn.
On my dresser is the photograph taken on our wedding day, November 4, 1908. Katherine and I were married at the American Consulate in Shanghai, and we are wearing Chinese clothes in the picture; our western clothes were too shabby for the occasion, and by then we had dressed in Chinese clothes for two years. Next to the photograph is my wife's diary, a thin volume I never read while she was alive but whose pages I now know by heart. Reading her sporadic entries is bittersweet, for while they bring our years together to life, they also show me my flaws and the ways in which I hurt her, unintentional though they were. But her pages make it seem that she is near, and if the price I pay for that closeness is regret it is a bargain still, albeit a painful one. I was her husband for over thirty-seven years, during which the longest we were apart was thirty-one days. She taught me the self-discipline I lacked, believed I was capable of far more than I did, and loved me as a young man as well as an old one. She was the one and only love of my life.
When I was twenty-one and on my way to China, I tried to envision my life there. I saw myself preaching to huge gatherings of people, baptizing eager new converts, working with my brothers in Christ to improve their lives. I did not foresee the hardships and dangers that lay ahead: the loss of one so precious, the slow and painful deprivation of drought and famine, the continual peril of violence, the devastation of war, the threat to my own dear wife. Again and again we were saved by the people we had come to help and carried through by the Lord we had come to serve. I am amazed at His faithfulness; even now our lives there fill me with awe.
Last week when I was sitting in the small reading room of the retirement home in which I live, a man selling Fuller brushes visited. It was a hot day, and the man was invited in for a glass of water. He looked to be about fifty years old. There were several of us in the reading room, and as the salesman approached and awkwardly began to show us his great variety of brushes—nailbrushes, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, scrub brushes, whisk brooms—I heard his difficulty with English, and because he was oriental I asked if he spoke the standard language, Mandarin. He nodded and I began to speak in our shared tongue, and when he asked my Chinese name and I gave it, he stared at me in wonder.
"Mu shih," he said urgently, Mandarin for shepherd-teacher—pastor—"you baptized me and took me into church fellowship when I was a young man. I am your son."
I am retired now, and while at the age of eighty-one I know this is as it must be, it is strange not to be involved in active ministry; gone are the responsibilities that filled my life for so many years. I continue my work by praying for those who still serve, which I am able to do as my mind is sound. My physical health is also good; my nephew, John, a medical doctor, keeps careful watch over me, and I am well taken care of in these years, measured and monitored as never before. My niece, Madeleine, and my great-nieces and -nephews and their children also visit, and I am doted on by these younger generations.
I am also in the good company of many who have placed the Great Commission foremost in their lives. I live at Glenwood Manor, a home for retired missionaries in Claremont, California, a small town some thirty miles east of Los Angeles. With its parades on the Fourth of July and Homecoming Weekend, its parks, and its tidy downtown, Claremont is wholesome and wholly American. From my room I look out on a small vegetable garden that thrives despite my come-and-go attention. Beyond the garden are the city's eucalyptus-lined streets, and beyond them citrus groves and the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and Mount Baldy. Each morning I walk to Memorial Park and the Public Library, and afterward I answer letters and read a daily Chinese newspaper and books to which I had no access during my years in China. Once a week I read a newspaper in German, the language of my parents and my childhood. At the start of the day when I read the Scriptures, I see truths I have never seen before, even after several decades of preaching the Gospel. And I dream of Chung-Kuo, the Middle Kingdom: China.
I am an ordinary man and an unlikely missionary. The talents I have been able to offer my Lord are small and few and far outnumbered by my faults. I am often slow in getting things done, and at times I exhibit a marked willingness to avoid work. I have never considered myself an intuitive person, and I am inexperienced in many of the ways of modern life. I have, for example, never learned how to drive—I gave up after twice failing the required test—and I know little about the world of finance. I am absentminded and I often misplace things, and while I struggle with pride, I am rarely angry. Nor am I greedy, for which I have my heritage to thank; I am the son and grandson of Mennonite farmers who came to America for religious freedom, and I was raised to aspire to a simple life of farming the land and following Christ. But despite my ordinariness and the smallness of my talents, I have led an extraordinary life. This is God's grace, His unearned favor.
When I was twelve years old, a missionary spoke at the small schoolhouse in Washita County, Oklahoma, where my three brothers and two sisters and I were taught weekdays for six months of the year. We spoke English at school, but at home and in church we still spoke the mother tongue, low German, though our parents had been in America for more than twenty years. German must be God's language, my uncle told me with great seriousness, because that's what the Bible was written in. He did not see the humor in this.
The missionary was from India and he said he was returning there the following month, which I found startling, for he was old and frail. He told our class that in foreign lands the need for those to share the Good News and to care for people's bodies and souls was great, and that a missionary could be a doctor in the mission field as long as he had a good strong brush and plenty of soap and water. "A missionary brings light to the darkness," he said. "We are called to go where there is little light, and where there are people in need of help."
It seemed he was speaking directly to me; my face grew hot and I felt a pull somewhere inside. At the end of class when the offering was taken, I gave all I had—the quarter I had earned for work on the farm, plus six pennies.
At that time, I had not yet been baptized. As Mennonites we believed that faith comes not as an inheritance but as a personal decision; it is a gift freely offered and up to each individual to accept. My parents worked hard to help their children be ready to receive that gift; my mother knelt and prayed with us each morning, and in the evening my father read to us from Scripture. I was taught that faith should be apparent in every area of one's life, and I saw evidence of my parents' faith in their actions. They shared what they had with those who had less, they never turned a stranger away, and they showed me that loving our neighbor often meant feeding and clothing him, even if that involved less comfort for us. These things were as much a given in our home as taking your hat off when you were spoken to.
While faith was not my inheritance, it was my heritage. My German ancestors were people who lived apart from the world and much to themselves in Prussia, preferring not to unite with the state and its church. They wanted no part in government affairs and refused to take up firearms, for doing so would violate the commandment Thou shalt not kill. Czarina Catherine II of Russia, hearing that the community was skilled in building dikes, offered its members a deal: she would give them large tracts of virgin farmland in Polish Russia and the freedom to practice their beliefs, in return for which the people would improve the land.
Mennonites believe in the dignity of labor, and they accepted Catherine's offer. Six thousand souls left Prussia for Polish Russia, where they built their own churches and schools and were exempted from military service. They were allowed to substitute an affirmation for an oath—swearing of any kind was forbidden by God—and they were allowed to bury their own dead. They began to work the swampland along the Vistula River, where they built dikes high enough to keep the river's overflow from the lowlands, eventually transforming vast expanses of swampland into thousands of acres of wheat. They continued to speak German and they thrived for many years.
Until 1873, when Alexander II, Catherine's great-grandson, revoked their special privileges, causing the community to look once more for a place where they would be free of the demands of an aristocratic government. The United States seemed to be the answer; its Constitution promised equal rights to all, and Congress had passed a bill that excused conscientious objectors from bearing arms. The community sent a delegation to America to spy out the land, and they returned with good news: fertile farmland could be had for very little, and the state of Kansas exempted Mennonites from military service. The Santa Fe railroad sent an agent to Russia to offer free transportation on a chartered steamer.
Thus in October of 1874, after selling their land for a fraction of its value, it was to America that everyone went. With their families and friends, my parents traveled by rail to Antwerp and from there to New York on the Netherland. The group settled in Kansas, but my parents soon found that their one-hundred-and-sixty-acre farm was too small to support a family of six. In 1885, the year I was born, they traveled to the western part of Oklahoma territory and leased a section of land that had never been cultivated.
Again and again, my ancestors said yes to God, and as I grew I saw those around me say yes as well. Over the months then years I watched one person after another in our community walk forward at Sunday services. At times I looked wistfully, even enviously, at the new church members and wished that I, too, could say the words, could produce the faith. But I could not; I was suspicious of God and was afraid that, if I said yes to Him, He would change me in ways I would not like and ask of me things I did not want to do. I thought of the visiting missionary, and of what I had felt as he spoke. What if God should ask me to leave home? That I could never do. So I tolerated the restlessness that dwelt in my heart and decided that faith could wait.
Which it did, for four years, until early one morning in late summer when I was in the fields. I was sixteen years old and farming was what I loved. I knew how to prepare seedbeds, plow the fields, plant and tend our crops, and harvest wheat and fruit at the optimal time, and I felt a deep satisfaction in watching things grow. Our property was bound by a creek to the north and a line of dogwood trees to the south, with the Washita River running through the center of our land. To the south of the river we grew wheat and to the north was grassland for cattle, with orchards on either side. We harvested more grain and fruit than we could haul to market, and nearly everything on our table came from our farm: cheese and sausage, bread and eggs and jam, apples and peaches and corn.
That morning I fell to my knees behind the plow to pray before I began the day's work, just as I did every morning, for while I was unable to surrender myself to God, I was equally unable to turn my back on Him, and I could not discard my habit of cautious prayer. The day was already hot and the sun warmed my back as I knelt in the cool red dirt and thanked God for my life and asked Him to help me plow a straight line.
I was about to stand when something stopped me. It was the quiet, a deep calm that I did not want to leave or disturb. I stayed very still, and as I gazed out at the wide expanse of rich red earth, my mind and heart grew still as well. 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. As I remained kneeling in the red soil, it seemed that the gift of faith was being offered to me. I whispered, "Help me to believe," and a feeling of great relief came over me as I realized how I had been longing for enough faith to give myself over. From somewhere inside I felt a yes, and an unfamiliar peace replaced the restlessness in my soul.
Two weeks later, I gave my testimony at our meetinghouse. As I looked out at the congregation, my face grew hot and my voice trembled and I felt myself perspire, but I persevered. Four Sundays later, with our congregation gathered around me, I walked into the clear rushing water of the Washita River. As I knelt, our pastor cupped his hands behind my head and I lay back in the water and felt it rush over me. Then I was up, gasping and wet and cold, and I felt new.
When I finished school three years later, my father sent me to the Gemeinde Schule—community school—a small Bible academy established by the church in nearby Corn, Oklahoma. The younger members of our church community were trained to take on the work of the older ones; my father hoped that when I finished at the academy I would attend the church's Bible College in Hutchinson, Kansas, then return home to become superintendent of our Sunday school.
But that is not what happened. On a Saturday afternoon in late summer of 1906, a few weeks before I was to leave for Kansas, we had a visitor. His name was Edward Geisler, and he and my father greeted each other with a holy kiss, the custom among members of our faith. He was nearly family, my father said; Edward had left Russia in the same group as our family, and he had given himself to God's service. He had traveled to China in 1901 with five other young volunteers as part of the South Chihli Mission, and a few years later he and his wife and another Mennonite, the first Mennonite missionaries in China, had formed the China Mennonite Missionary Society. Now he had come home from China's interior to seek an increase in support for their work and to take new recruits back with him to China. "Our friend is following the Great Commission," my father said. " 'Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Gospel to all creation.' "
The next morning Edward spoke at our church. What God asked of us, he said, was nothing less than absolute surrender. "The Gospel tells us this clearly: 'Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.' The question we must ask ourselves is, What are we holding back? What is it that we will not give up?"
I felt found out, as thoroughly convicted as if Edward had addressed me by name. Something tightened in my center, a tense feeling that stayed with me the rest of the day, and at dinner that night I did not speak. My mother asked if I was ill and whether I wanted to leave the table. A part of me did, but I stayed where I was.
I was sitting next to Edward, who seemed to single me out from my siblings. He asked me kindly about school and farming and my baptism, and he said he could see that I loved God and that my faith would bless me all my life. I said no more than what was required, not because I disliked Edward but because I was so drawn to him. He was tall and thin and awkward and not handsome—unexceptional, like me, I thought—but when he spoke of China, I could not look away.
He talked of Keng-Tze Nien, the Boxer Year six years earlier when thousands of Chinese Christians and 186 missionaries and their children had been murdered for following Christ by members of the secret Society of Righteous Harmonious Fists. But Christ's message would not be stopped, Edward said; the people's needs were too immense. They suffered from ignorance about hygiene and lack of medical care. Many infants died at birth, and fewer than half of those who lived survived to their first birthday. Mothers fed their children rat feces to cure them of stomach ailments, men applied the bile from the gallbladders of bears to heal their children's eyes, and opium addicts and beggars slept in the streets.
Yet Edward made no capital of what he had seen. "The suffering is great, as is the need for help, physical and spiritual." He paused, and his expression softened. "But the rewards are also great. The people are the kindest and most generous I have known. They are wise in many ways, and there is much to learn from them and to admire. They have the right to hear the Gospel."
Toward the end of the meal, Edward turned to me. "I return to China in a few weeks. My wife is there, caring for our children and carrying on our work. We need helpers, for the harvest is great, the laborers few. Why don't you come with me, Will? The Chinese language is difficult, but far easier when you are young. Perhaps this is your calling."
I saw my siblings trying to stifle their laughter. Of all our family, I was the least likely to leave. I wasn't good at speaking in front of people; I became nervous and I stammered. I was quiet and shy, I wasn't a good student, and I disliked being away from home.
"I'm needed here," I said, my voice cracking. "I haven't any training or gifts of that kind."
Edward said, "The Giver of those gifts may feel otherwise," and he looked at me, his blue eyes bright. "A torch's one qualification is that it be fitted to the master's hand. God's chosen are often not talented or wise or gifted as the world judges. Our Lord sees what is inside"—Edward touched his chest—"and that is why He calls whom He does." Then he turned to my father and they began to talk about wheat.
In the morning Edward left to visit other churches; he would return in a week. During those days I struggled, for while I felt pulled toward Edward's work, the idea seemed too foolish to even consider. I couldn't imagine leaving home; I suspected I was unfit for anything but farming, and I thought surely God would want me to remain where I had been planted. I decided I was being proud to think I might be remotely capable of meeting the challenges that must face a man like Edward every day, for in the few years that had passed since I joined the church, I did not feel I had made much progress spiritually. I yearned to walk more closely with God, and while I did experience moments of joy, they were often followed by days of despair. I told myself that surely God would not ask me to do work that was so clearly beyond me, and I fervently prayed that China was not my calling.
The night before Edward was to return, I woke suddenly in the night. When I couldn't fall back to sleep, I crept out of bed and down the ladder that led from the attic bedroom I shared with my brothers. I sat down at the table my father had made from the elm trees that edged our land, and for a while I just listened to the nighttime sounds of our home—the even rhythm of my father's snoring in the next room, the soft rush of the wind outside, the neat ticking of the kitchen clock—sounds as familiar as my own heartbeat.
As I sat there, I suddenly knew I would go to China. The realization was as simple and definite as the plunk of a small stone in the deep well of my soul, and despite the fact that it would mean leaving what I loved most in the world, I felt not the sadness and dread I had expected but a sense of freedom and release. The tightness in me loosened like cut cord, and I was joyful.
The next morning I stood nervously in our kitchen, my hands gripping the rough wood that framed the door, as I waited to tell my father of my decision. I was worried about his reaction; I expected disappointment and anger and dreaded them equally. I had not disobeyed my parents since I was a small boy, and the thought that God might ask me to do so now made my heart clench.
I saw my father coming toward me from the chicken house. He had barely entered the yard before I hurried to meet him.
"I have something to tell you," I said. "I feel that God is calling me to serve Him in China. I know it makes no sense; I know I'm unqualified and I'm needed here and my decision must seem all wrong to you. But yes seems the only answer I can give."
I had braced myself for my father's objections, but none came. He stared at me without speaking for a long moment; then he put his arms around me and embraced me tightly. "Will," he said, "you have chosen the better part. How could I refuse you?"
Edward was to leave for Seattle from his family's home in French Creek near Hillsboro, Kansas, in two weeks. My parents went with me to the farewell meeting, which was held at the home of fellow Mennonites, where, with the friends and relatives who were able to join us, Edward, myself, and three other recruits sat outside at rough tables and benches under shade trees while Edward read Scripture and prayed for us and led us in the four-part singing of a few hymns. A few of the group gave their testimonies; then we shared a fellowship meal, and our families and friends wished us well.
At the end of the meeting, my mother took me aside. "Will, do you have money to travel?"
I felt instantly foolish and ashamed, for I hadn't even thought about money; I had somehow thought Edward would take care of it. Out of pride and embarrassment, I said, "I hadn't worked it out. Edward invited me. He'll pay the bills."
My mother shook her head. "Here," she said, and she took my hand and pressed a roll of bills into it, more money than I had ever seen. She smiled at my amazement. "It's my inheritance from my parents, two hundred dollars. Edward says it will cover the train to Seattle and the steamship across the ocean." She held me close for moment. Then she said, "My sweet boy—I will miss you more than you know."
At the railway station, my parents and I stood together awkwardly. When it was time to board, my heart pounded and I suddenly wanted to change my mind; it seemed that doing something right shouldn't hurt so much. But the conductor called out and waved his small flag, and I knew I had to go.
I embraced my mother and father a last time. None of us could speak. I walked to the train and climbed aboard, then hurried back to the last car and watched my parents until I could no longer make them out in the distance; even my father waving his broad-brimmed felt hat was gone. I worked at committing this last sight of them to memory, so I could call it up at will, and I tried to console myself with the idea that I would return in five years. But it did not ease the ache in my chest.
My mother had never sent me off anywhere without food, and this departure was no exception. Packed in a small basket were homemade sausage and biscuits, apples from our orchard, spice cake, and tea, all of which I shared with Edward and the three other recruits, whom I found intimidating, for at twenty-one I knew I was the youngest and least experienced. Jacob and Agnes Schmidt were a married couple who had met at the Salvation Army, and Ruth Ehren was a deaconess, which meant, Edward explained, that she had completed a two-year nurse's training program at an orphanage and hospital in Berne, Indiana, so that she could devote herself to the care of the poor and sick. The long black dress and black bonnet she wore signified her training and position. A fourth recruit, another deaconess, would join us in Seattle.
After three days on the train we reached Seattle, where we would spend our last night in America with friends of Edward's. At the railway station Edward asked me to stay with the luggage while he took the others to our hosts' home. While I was sitting on the trunks, a young woman passed by. She wore the same type of black dress and bonnet that Ruth did, and when Edward returned for me, he brought this young woman with him and introduced her as Katherine Friesen, from the Deaconess Hospital in Cleveland. "She's also my wife's sister," Edward added, and I heard the pride in his voice. She smiled fondly at him but seemed to ignore me, which was fine by me, for I could not speak. Although slight, she was so sure of herself and so imposing in her black dress that I was in awe of her from the start.
October 3, 1906
I am far away from home tonight, the farthest I have ever been, sitting in the comfortable parlor in the home of strangers in a rainy city I do not know on the edge of this continent. Tomorrow at this time I will be even farther away, miles out to sea—I, Katherine Friesen, who have spent my life in the middle of this country with not so much as a glimpse of the ocean, will be in the middle of it! I have surprised myself this evening, for while I thought I would be anxious or afraid, I am neither. Although I love my family and will miss them, and although I have no idea what to expect of the days, weeks, and months ahead, here is my secret: I am happy. My heart beats strangely; I feel more like I am returning home than leaving it.
These giddy feelings seem wrong. Shouldn't a good daughter, a good sister, a good deaconess, be ambivalent about leaving home? But I'm not, which amazes me. I'm amazed that I've made it to Seattle, amazed at my good health, amazed that one obstacle after another concerning money and the details of the journey has been overcome. Here I am, sitting at this cherrywood table by a warm fire, "en route to the Far East," as our hosts put it; how glamorous it sounds!
The other recruits don't seem to share my high spirits; they already look homesick. The married couple appears to be aware only of each other; I haven't seen them more than two feet apart all evening. Young love, I suppose. Ruth Ehren, the other deaconess, is as somber as if our journey were a punishment. She's what people often envision when they hear the word missionary—a serious soul who travels to faraway lands to turn heathens into Westerners. I don't understand her; being morose seems like such a loss.
Then there is Will Kiehn, who strikes me as awkward and dreamy, but Edward certainly sees something in him; his strong encouragement is the reason Will is going to China. I can see that Edward loves this clumsy boy, for he already favors him every chance he gets; tonight at dinner he passed Will extra crescent rolls (the boy seemed ravenous—I kept wanting to ask if anyone had been feeding him) and afterward he made sure Will wrote a letter to his parents. Edward says Will reminds him of his younger self, that when he talked to Will about China, Will's expression of wonder mirrored his own feelings when he was starting out. That's how I felt too when I began to sense the idea of China in my soul, a kind of irrational certainty that I would go, even though it made no sense. Edward says that when Will told him of his decision to go with him to China he felt a bounce of joy inside; he was certain he'd met a like-minded soul. This is high praise, for while my brother-in-law can be impetuous and unorthodox in his ways, he is as wise as he is kind, which makes me believe there must be more to this Will than I see. Perhaps he isn't as bothersome as he seems.
Edward's excitement is a dramatic contrast to the somber mood of the others. His eyes are bright as he talks of leaving in the morning, and I see the energy in his step and his movements, as though this tidy home in which we are guests constrains him. Of course he really is returning home—to Naomi and the boys and the new baby, all of whom I'm eager to see—so there is reason for his joy. But I think it is more than a homecoming. He is excited about the work.
As am I. I have no idea what this life will be like, nor can I guess whether I'll be gone for five years or fifty. I know only that I am happy—in my heart and mind and soul and even my body, which feels strong and sturdy and healthy. I'm weary too, but I don't mind the fatigue; I am on my way to China, and that is enough.
Early the next morning we left for the Seattle docks and for the S.S. Minnesota, which was to depart shortly before noon. Edward settled us on board then went to secondhand stores to purchase a few last supplies he knew he couldn't get in China. Noon came and he hadn't returned, a problem because he had the tickets. The whistle blew once, then a second time, and finally Edward came charging up the gangplank, awkwardly carrying a load of folding chairs he'd bought at what he excitedly said was a most reasonable price.
The thick ropes tethering the ship to the dock were untied and we were under way. I stayed on deck, and in my mind I said goodbye to my family once again as I watched Seattle and America recede.
Edward joined me, and for a while we were silent. Then he said, "Perhaps it's time to learn your first Mandarin phrase."
I was immediately anxious; I did not feel at all up to tackling a new language. But when he spoke again, I was so drawn to the sound of what he said that I couldn't help asking its meaning.
He smiled and repeated it. "Tsaichien mei-kuo," he said. "Tsaichien is goodbye, mei is beautiful, kuo is country. That's the name for America: Beautiful Country."
I tried to repeat it. Then I asked him the word for China.
"Chung-Kuo," he said. "It means Middle Kingdom, because of the people's ancient belief that their country was at the center of a vast square earth, surrounded by the Four Seas, beyond which lay islands inhabited by barbarians. That's us." Edward turned and faced the front of the ship, and the expanse of ocean spread before us, so that America was behind us. "The strange part," he said softly, "is that after you've been there for a while, it truly does feel like the center of the world. It becomes a place you never want to leave."
I nodded, willing to be convinced. For at that moment, despite the homesickness that had accompanied me like a stowaway since I'd left home, I had a dim hope that, given time, I might come to feel the same.
Meet the Author
Bo Caldwell is the author of the national bestseller The Distant Land of My Father. Her short fiction has been published in Ploughshares, Story, Epoch, and other literary journals. A former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, she lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
As the story begins Will Kiehn (his real name) Kung P'ei Te (his Chinese name) is in an retirement home in California for retired missionaries. As he sits and looks out his window he remembers all the years he and his deceased wife served in China and witnessed to these people. Then he picks up his wedding picture and begins to remember. In 1909 Will and his wife, Katherine arrived in Kuang P'ing Ch'eng (City of Tranquil Light), in the North China Plain to establish a new Mennonite church. They had no idea that they would serve there for twenty-five years and came to think as China as their home, more so than America. Will preaches the Word of God while Katherine provides medical care in her clinic. They did not so in and try to change the Chinese people to their way of thinking but they wore the same type of clothing and ate the same food, so they were highly respected. They lived through a lot: personal losses, bandits, famine, earthquakes and civil war. Although a historical novel, thankfully, Caldwell only includes enough facts to place her characters within the context of China's historical events. So that in itself makes for a good read. Some friends of ours served as Missionaries in China, India, and they served in this same way. I have heard them talk about this same city, so my friend had written a book about the ways of the people and the hardships so this was a good read for me, it followed up on what he had written. This book was sent to me by The B&B Media Group for review.
Fascinating for its American and Chinese characters and their evolving relationship and respect for one another. Wonderful portrait of a small Chinese village over the years of change. Recommended for men and women readers. And yes, book club discussions too.
City of Tranquil Light, a Novel (National Bestseller) Bo Caldwell ©2010 St. Martin’s Griffin, NY ISBN 978-0-8050-9228-8 283 pp. (ppbk) plus reading group guide, author intro and pictures For forty years, a young Mennonite couple, Will and Kathryn, who met and married in North China, lived among villagers, met their health needs, started a church, orphanage and school and saved hundreds of natives from death while enduring amazing difficulties themselves. This is a story of love, courage, persistence and life in a rapidly changing nation. Although written as a novel, the story sounds so real readers will feel themselves in China among Chinese people of various strata. Readers will live through famines, wars, injustices, joys, sorrow, friendships and beauty along with Will and Kathryn. Eventually, with the Communist take-over, Will and Kathryn must return to Los Angeles where they work for many years with a Chinese-American church. The story ends with Will’s last twenty years without his beloved wife. The last few pages are so beautifully written they feel like the best part of an entire excellent story
Story based on facts and real life experiences. Great read.
Bo Caldwell's City of Tranquil Light is a riveting story of Will and Katherine, missionaries to China. Will and Katherine cross the ocean in their early 20s to take the Gospel to the people of China. The novel describes their life in China, their ministry to their Chinese neighbors, the birth and growth of their church, and their faith in God that kept them steadfast through heartache, trials, famine, bandits, death, and war. Through everything, they come to love China as "home." Inspired by her maternal grandparents' missionary service in China, Will and Katherine's story is ultimately about the power and sovereignty of God. The writing style is unique in that the author successfully tells the story from both Will's and Katherine's point of view. The bulk of the story is told as a "memoir" of sorts by an elderly Will reflecting back over the course of his life. Caldwell weaves in Katherine's journal entries to fill out the rest of the picture. It reads like an excellently written biography. I caught myself several times thinking of the characters as real people. Additionally, Caldwell's vivid description made me feel as though I had actually been to China simply by reading the book. I highly recommend this wonderful story. Bo Caldwell has made it to my must-read list! I received a free copy of this book from The B&B Media Group in exchange for my fair and honest review.
Would you be willing to risk your life to spread the gospel of Jesus? Will Kiehn is just that ordinary man seemingly destined for life as a humble farmer in the Midwest, when Edward Geisler comes to his church one day to share his testimony of being a missionary in China. After returning home and finding out that Edward is coming to dinner, Will isn't sure if the strange feeling inside is God's calling or guilt. When plowing his fields one day, he kneels to pray like he does every morning, and immediately feels the peace of God come upon him and give him confirmation that he is calling him to leave home and go to China with Edward. Upon heading out with Edward on a ship bound for China, Will meets Katherine Friesen, a Deaconess from a hospital in Cleveland, who has also made the commitment to go to China. During the rough voyage that test more than their personal stamina, across open waters, poor living conditions, Will and Katherine become united in more than their ministry, they become married. As they work to improve the lives of the people of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng- City of Tranquil Light, a place they come to love despite the crumbling of more than a two-thousand year dynasty that plunges the country into years of civil war in the early 1900's. They face hardships they could have never imagined: a personal loss that shakes them both to the core, the constant threat of bandits, the physical dangers and tragedies of warlord China. They are tested both spiritually and physically, and they are also rewarded in ways that will leave them forever changed. This story is one of marriage, of leaving one home and finding another, and of faith. I received this book City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell compliments of B & B Media Group for my honest review. I was deeply touched as I read the story from both her grandparents perspectives of the lives that they both lived during China in the 1900's when the country was in utter turmoil. This is their memoir and shows just how our much our faith can grown in the midst of turmoil and adversity. This one rates a 5 out of 5 stars.
"City Of Tranquil Light" is the story of missionaries Will and Katherine Keihn. While it is a story of their missionary work in China, it is also a love story between two people who were married for 37 years.While life was never easy, dealing with sickness, a war torn country, and the death of their daughter, they never gave up, and never lost their faith in God. Will is 81, and living in a retirement home for missionaries in California, as he unfolds the journey of his life doing missionary work in China. Growing up as a Mennonite farm boy in Oklahoma, he never imagined himself as a missionary, but when God called him into the field he heeded the call, so at the age of twenty-one he finds himself on his way to China. He met his wife Katherine on that trip and thus begins their remarkable journey as missionaries in China. The story is told from two peoples perspectives, Will and his wife Katherine, whose voice is heard from the pages of her diary. Will says "He never read her diary while she was alive but knows the pages by heart," a statement in which you can feel the longing he feels for his deceased wife, and partner Katherine. While this story is a work of fiction, it is actually inspired by the authors grandparents' missionary work in China. While I was drawn into the story of Will and Katherine I also enjoyed learning a bit about Mennonite culture and getting a historical glimpse of China. A beautiful love story, filled with faith and hope. A story that is well worth reading! I read the hardback version of this book. Even though I was provided a review copy of this book by B&B Media Group for review it in no way alters my opinion of this book.
City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell is the fictionalized version of the author's grandparents' time as missionaries in China. Will Kiehn was happy with his life as a farmer's son, until he hears a missionary from China speaking of his time over there, and Will feels a call deep within his soul that he is unable to deny. He quickly falls in love with fellow missionary, Katherine Frieson, and eventually the two marry and begin their love affair with the people of the small Chinese town of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng, City of Tranquil Light. Their ministry begins slowly as they try to overcome the distrust of foreigners, but Katherine's healing skills and Will's love for people soon allows them to make the town their true home. Through bandits, war, earthquakes, and famine, they care for these people and bring them the love of God, despite their own terrible personal losses. Caldwell's writing alternates between Will and Katherine's narration, giving the reader a true view of the couple's triumphs and tragedies. Their tenacity in the midst of unimaginable hardship is inspiring, and Caldwell's writing is evocative and beautiful. She brings to life the China this couple fell in love with, and eventually loved enough to sacrifice their own happiness for.
In 1966 widower Will Koehn looks back at his life with his wife Katherine who died twenty years earlier. In 1906, Will an Oklahoma farmer and Katherine Friesen a Cleveland deaconess met on a ship traveling to China. Both were Mennonite missionaries filled with enthusiasm and fear. They became companions and later a married couple as she offered her nursing skills and he the word of the Lord. The pair was there when the revolution occurred culminating with the rise of Kuomintang even as other missionaries are violently exiled. The duo stays through drought, famine, earthquakes and winters requiring five thick coats; as long as Will and Kate had each other and God, they can help others cope with any human atrocity and any natural disaster. This is an entertaining early twentieth century epic that provides a vast loook of life in China. The dedicated couple endures all sorts of external problems, but though at times it seems over the top as they adhere to their mission and each other in an almost superhero detached way, their love for God and each other keeps them strong and going. Ironically the passion in this engaging historical comes with Katherine's diary as she invokes feelings for the plight of their Chinese neighbors and for each other. Harriet Klausner
I gave this book to my Mother who is an avid reader. She said she couldn't put it down. Because she reads a lot, and especially stories about people's lives, it is a real compliment when she likes a book a lot. She enjoyed it very much.
Gorgeous! Just that word .. it's a gorgeous story. The deep and true love and strength and faith through unimaginable poverty and hardships and loss ... This was a book that you really didn't want to put down. I felt myself drawn into these missionaries' lives (not as though I'd want to live them, however, as I'm a bit too used to running water, electricity, and food to want to live their lives), but feeling as they felt and seeing what strengths each of these characters had was an awesome journey. Both Will and Katherine are Mennonite missionaries who felt a call to serve when they were extremely young. Although they didn't know each other, in 1906, they joined Edward (Katherine's brother-in-law) on a journey across the sea with 3 others to serve the people of China. Not only must they both learn Chinese (an extremely difficult language to master), they cope with both expected and unexpected hardships, including people who look at most foreign missionaries as trying to "change them" and infiltrate their culture. They fall in love with each other, with their new country and with it's people. As Will ministers to the people, Katherine tends to them as a healer. This story is a sweeping look at a country in the middle of an epic upheaval. The Emperor will be overthrown, and decades of civil war will follow. Although Will and Katherine only plan to stay for a few years, their stay turns into decades as well, and this story is told through both Will's eyes and through the words in Katherine's diary. It is a plain-speak, but heartbreakingly poignant, look at many facets and levels of love. From the love of a husband and wife, to the love of God, to the love of a true friend, and even to the love of someone who should be an enemy. This book has bandits, and treachery, laughter and misery, loss and redemption, and it will leave you feeling good at the end. My only con: (and I hope that this is corrected in the final version), is that the foreword states that this story is based on the lives of the author's grandparents, although in reading the book, you find out that they didn't HAVE grandchildren. I think the publisher synopsis works best in stating that it is "inspired" by their lives. (I received an Advanced Reader's Copy of this title from the publisher to facilitate my review)
Will Kiehn was a young Mennonite man struggling with his faith, eventually relinquishing his life and will to God after hearing Edward Geisler, missionary to China, speak at his church. Receiving his father's blessing, he followed the call of God to China in 1906. Also recruited was Katherine Friesen, Edward's sister-in-law, who had schooling in nursing, along with two more recruits who felt the call of God to work in China. This is a novel based on the true life of the author's maternal grandparents, Peter and Anna Schmidt Kiehn, and her grandmother's older sister, Nellie, and her husband, Henry Bartel. When I think of 2010 missionaries, I think of them flying to their destinations, with access to cell phones, computers, vehicles, etc. City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell is about missionary service in the harshest of times: a poor country with little to no amenities, drought, civil unrest, bandits, personal loss and danger, and outdated transportation that took months instead of hours to arrive. This is a love story between Will and Katherine Kiehn, Kung P'ei Te and Kung Mei Li in Mandarin Chinese, as well as their years of missionary service in Kuang P'ing Ch'eng, City of Tranquil Light. Bo does an excellent job of weaving a story of daunting circumstances, with extreme tests of Will and Katherine's faith, their trust in God and their tenacious spirits challenged during some of their most difficult times. Her book is a heart-wrenching, yet love-filled story of the grace of God in time of need, but not always the way they expected. I love her choice of alternating voices of Will and Katherine, written in journal format. One gets to 'hear the heart' behind the story of both husband and wife through all that they endure. Bo elaborates on the historical changes in China, which are numerous and calamitous, including their barbaric methods of punishment. Yet through all this, she shows Will and Katherine's ministry of the love of God through their physical and medical assistance and preaching the Word, working for change in the Chinese peoples' lives, both friend and foe alike, willingly and sometimes not so willingly. I was truly touched by the intimacy of Will and Katherine's lives, friends, love, and devotion. A recommended reading for anyone considering missionary work. Special thanks to Audra Jennings, Senior Media Specialist, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest review.