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Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake

4.0 16
by John Dalton

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When Vincent Saunders — fresh out of college in the States — arrives in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer and English teacher, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman who wishes to marry a young woman living in China near Heaven Lake but is thwarted by political conflict. Mr. Gwa wonders: In exchange for money, will Vincent travel to China, take


When Vincent Saunders — fresh out of college in the States — arrives in Taiwan as a Christian volunteer and English teacher, he meets a wealthy Taiwanese businessman who wishes to marry a young woman living in China near Heaven Lake but is thwarted by political conflict. Mr. Gwa wonders: In exchange for money, will Vincent travel to China, take part in a counterfeit marriage, and bring the woman back to Taiwan for Gwa to marry legitimately? Believing that marriage is a sacrament, Vincent says no.
Soon, though, everything Vincent understands about himself and his vocation in Taiwan changes. A complicated friendship with one of the high-school girls he teaches sends him on a path toward spiritual reckoning. It also causes him to reconsider Gwa's extraordinary proposition. What follows is not just an exhilarating — sometimes harrowing — journey to a remote city in China, but an exploration of love, loneliness, and the nature of faith.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Richly drawn...delicate and revealing...a winning novel."
Los Angeles Times

"Absorbing...and compelling....[A] rich first novel about the mysteries of human yearning."
Chicago Tribune

"Heaven Lake is a sort of Divine Comedy in reverse: a young man's trek through hell to get away from God. John Dalton has created such a compelling epic that the reader will gladly follow its hero, Vincent, on his scorching journey across China to find out how the world will punish and reward him. Our reward is this beautiful book."
— Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto

"Impeccably written...a thorough work of operatic feeling and proportion...stunning."
San Francisco Chronicle

"[An] evocative, beautiful exploration of modern-day China....Powerful and rewarding reading."

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
A young American missionary experiences the darker side of human nature -- including his own -- in this intense, spellbinding novel.

Vincent Saunders is a fairly naïve 25-year-old when he leaves the homogeneity of his Illinois hometown to help establish a ministry in a small Taiwanese village. Dedicated to the spread of Christianity, Vincent believes in his ability to "see deeply into other people's lives and offer them a love and wisdom they might not even have known they were seeking." But far away from the trappings that helped anchor his faith, he succumbs to the physical allures of a female student and suffers a beating from her protective brother. Rather than repent and face the wrath of his new community, Vincent decides to help a wealthy Taiwanese businessman arrange an illicit marriage with a Chinese woman, and finds himself whisked off across the vast expanse of Mainland China. Vincent's travels take him through affluent cities and remote towns of squalor and misery, and provide him with ample time to ruminate on the new path his life has taken. And though Vincent has numerous opportunities to return home, he resists them.

A world traveler and a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Dalton writes with clarity and precision and brings forth a novel that reflects both his deep familiarity with Asian culture and his exquisite craftsmanship. (Summer 2004 Selection)

The Washington Post
Dalton, who lives in North Carolina with his wife, Jen Jen Chang, spent several years in Taiwan, where he himself was once offered $10,000 to become a surrogate husband. Fluent in Mandarin, he knows China and shows it to us with meticulousness and enthusiasm. If Vincent is a less than fascinating character, the story of his adventures in this intriguing country captivate our attention and hold it throughout. — Larry Tritten
Publishers Weekly
Sober and searching yet sublimely comic, this impressive debut about a modern-day missionary in Taiwan charts a journey away from reflexive faith and toward a broader understanding of the world and its ways. Reminiscent of the work of Graham Greene and Norman Rush, but possessing a quirky innocence and gravitas all its own, the novel is crammed with heady matters, clashes of cultures, ill-considered schemes and unrequited love. Vincent Saunders, a man with strong religious beliefs, leaves his tiny Illinois hamlet to take a job as a Christian missionary in Taiwan. As the only volunteer in the mid-sized city of Toulio, he establishes and runs the ministry house, while teaching English classes to make ends meet. His Toulio acquaintances are an odd bunch: fellow boarder Alec, a foul-mouthed, hashish-smoking Scot; Shao-fei, the crippled son of Vincent's landlady; Gloria, a late-arriving volunteer with a passion for Chinese calligraphy and proselytizing. There is also Mr. Gwa, a local businessman, who offers Vincent $10,000 to go to mainland China, find the lovely young girl who has long bewitched the rich merchant, and pretend to marry her in order to bring her back. At first refusing to take the job on moral grounds, Vincent is forced to reconsider after he succumbs to the aggressive advances of Trudy, a wayward teenage girl in one of his English classes, which costs him his job and standing in the community. Rethinking Mr. Gwa's offer, he heads for China to bring back Kai-Ling, the man's bride. It is during this memorable journey to the heart of modern China that Vincent comes of age, emotionally and spiritually, enduring thieves, bizarre encounters and false promises from a reluctant bride with a lover on the side. Artfully pacing the series of revelations that rock the book on its way to a surprising conclusion, Dalton revises conventional assumptions about contemporary China and collective cultural views of love and marriage. This is a noteworthy first novel by a writer to watch. (Apr.) Forecast: The publisher is solidly behind this stellar effort, and Dalton will embark on a six-city author tour. This could be one of the spring's-if not the year's-biggest debuts. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This lengthy debut novel relates the journey of Vincent Saunders, a recent college graduate from the Midwest who travels to Taiwan to devote himself to Christian ministry. His na ve morality and self-righteousness are immediately shattered when he becomes involved in a sexual relationship with a younger student. When the affair is discovered, Vincent must leave his ministry and accept an offer from a businessman named Mr. Gwa to travel to the remote northwest corner of China and bring back his prospective bride, the beautiful Kai-ling. Vincent's journey gives him an up-close view of poverty that he never experienced in the Midwest. Because Kai-ling has become involved with another man, Vincent instead retrieves her young sister, Jia-ling, who is then forced into servitude for a friend of Mr. Gwa. Vincent comes to terms with his own wrongdoings by rescuing Jia-ling and discovers that the world is "a grayer, more complicated world than I ever imagined." Vincent's passage from a sheltered, religious life into reality is filled with dramatic episodes and unique characters that make this an exciting page-turner. Recommended for all collections.-David A. Berone, Univ. of New Hampshire Lib., Durham Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter Nine

Without chagrin or even a trace of contradiction, Jonathan Hwang informed Vincent that his new class at the Ming-da Academy would be comprised of forty-two teenaged girls. "The contest and the judging were both fair," Hwang said, and then wiggled his bony fingers to suggest the fickle nature of chance. "They're meeting with the principal now. I'll send them over as soon as they finish." He made an aloof, stiff-shouldered bow and left Vincent with a key to the language laboratory.

Once inside, Vincent found the room's consoles and chairs in pristine order. He practiced writing on the glossy board with erasable markers, forming loops and squiggled lines and words, and then wiping away everything but the word welcome, which he underlined in red and blue. Standing at the head of the class, before a waist-high lectern, he imagined himself in a white lab coat shuffling beakers and test tubes, and with a sudden smoky fizzle, distilling verbs, nouns, adjectives.

A sparkling panel of windows ran along the laboratory's south wall, and through them he could see the sweeping Ming-da courtyard. Soon a tidy column of students advanced from the east wing, swung left, and crossed under the spindly shadow of Chiang Kai-shek. They made a procession-like turn into the main building and moments later reappeared in two parallel lines outside the laboratory door. They all wore deep maroon uniforms with gold crests sewn to their lapels, and as they waited to enter, they shifted about, eagerly straightening one another's collars and shirtsleeves.

They carried this same air of regimented discipline into the classroom, where they paired off in four long rows and took their seats while a delegated student, the class secretary, called out attendance. She then held out the attendance booklet for Vincent to sign. The class president and vice president stepped forward and presented a typed letter in English from their school principal. It stated that their class had competed in and won a school-wide English competition. The letter went on to declare them an able and worthy class that had been given the distinct privilege of studying English conversation on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with a highly honored, foreign-born master of English.

Vincent smiled at the tone of the letter. He already suspected — from a brief but polite exchange of words with the class president — that their language ability might outrival the simple lessons he had developed for his Bible study class. He began with his now standard model sentence: Mark went to the park with Mr. Jones on Tuesday. The class repeated this in an eager, melodic singsong, their pronunciation exceptionally clear.

He pointed to a girl in the first seat of the first row. "Where did Mark go?" he asked.

The girl rose to her feet. She stood taller than most of her classmates and wore wire-rimmed glasses. "To the park," she replied.

"Good answer," Vincent said. "But I would like you to answer in a complete sentence. Do you understand what I mean, complete sentence?"

"Yes," she said. She gazed timidly about the room, looking to her classmates for encouragement. "Well," she began. "As you told us, Mark went to the park with Mr. Jones on Tuesday. But I think that maybe he went to one or two other areas. Perhaps he went to the cinema to see a foreign movie or perhaps he went to the zoo to see the lovely panda bears."

Vincent could hardly contain his delight. He made a great show of wadding up his lesson plan and throwing it in the waste bin. "You're too clever for that," he told the class. They applauded the announcement and favored him with bright, self-satisfied smiles. Now lessonless, he resorted to drawing a map of America on the board and then described the state of Illinois and his hometown of Red Bud. He rounded out the hour-long lesson by having each student ask him a question. They began with the standard inquiries, familiar questions that had been put to Vincent both by students in other classes and by complete strangers on trains and buses. How old are you? Are you married? How many people are in your family? Then questions of finance, which the Taiwanese considered perfectly acceptable topics of conversation. How much money do you make each month? How much is a car in America? And last, several odd queries, ones, Vincent suspected, the girls had simply translated into English from their homework assignments. Why is Taiwan the true China? How does the color red affect your mood? A student in the back row asked him to please describe the heroic natures of Chiang Kai-shek and Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

He answered all these questions with great care. He praised Taiwan and its national heroes, stated prudently that the situation in the Mainland was unfortunate. All the personal questions he answered truthfully, with the exception of those concerning his invented sister, Gloria, and his monthly salary. This he reduced to half its amount so the students would not think him too money-minded.

Before they left, he outlined a seating chart and worked his way down the long rows writing their names in the square grids. They all insisted on English names, which ranged from the customary, Sally and Christina, to the unconventional, Cookie and Snoopy. Violet proved to be a highly sought-after name. Three girls claimed it as their own, and when none of the three would accept another name, Vincent dubbed them Violet One, Violet Two, and Violet Three. At the end of the third row, a slim girl with large, sleepy eyes peered into his chart and said, "My Chinese name is Ch'iu Yüeh, which means 'Autumn Moon,' but I choose the English name Trudy because it is a lovely name and because it is a true name." Vincent penciled this in and when he lifted his eyes from the paper, she was tilting her head up toward him with a fondly amused grin.

During the course of succeeding lessons, Vincent learned that the girls were all third-year students, all either sixteen or seventeen years old. Evidently their high school had chosen a British English curriculum. Thus, their vocabulary was sprinkled with phrases such as waiting in the queue, my auntie from Taipei, and my bright red jumper. They used the word lovely to describe everything from fried rice to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. They shared a troublesome habit of lifting large, powerfully charged words from their Chinese-English dictionaries and inserting them clumsily into otherwise plain sentences: My plan to go to the department store was demolished by my father.

As proficient as they were in their English speaking, there remained long, uncomfortable pauses during class conversation. They understood his questions and knew the answers, and yet when asked to stand and speak, many became paralyzed with shyness. Collectively, they put forth a restrained, virginal sense of propriety that caused them to blush over the most minor mistakes and incidents. The word kiss discovered in a long list of English vocabulary made their faces redden and their hands fly up and cover their mouths. Most extraordinary of all was their ability to witness a single event — a joke, a mispronounced word — and react in a strikingly similar way, often mirroring one another's exact expressions. Vincent could enter the class and cunningly pretend to trip over the lectern's wooden base and send every girl reeling with laughter. How easily amused they were, and how beautiful, too. Their hair was dark and thick; their school did not allow them to wear it long, but even short it was full and clean and, he imagined, softly textured. Their bodies were slender with delicate, narrow waists, and they were shapely and tender in a way Vincent decided he was best off not thinking about.

On one particular Tuesday afternoon, Vincent turned from writing on the chalkboard and spied a hand in the back row bouncing fervently above his dark-haired audience. He glanced at his seating chart, called out the student's name, Trudy, and she stood.

"Teacher Vincent, do you have a girlfriend?" Trudy asked.

Because many people in Toulio knew he was a single male teacher, and an enigmatic foreigner as well, this had been another common question, one he consistently responded to with a good-natured no.

"No, I don't have a girlfriend." He shrugged amiably.

"Would you say," Trudy continued, "that I have a chance to become your girlfriend?"

The other students gasped in astonishment. A few girls raised tremulous hands to their lips. Trudy's question, it seemed, was not just an off-color remark. It was a stunner, an unexpected showstopper that bore down upon the class — the girls sank visibly in their seats — and produced a blunt, unbridgeable silence. Trudy herself was absolutely beaming; she had straightened her pose, widened her already large eyes in anticipation of his reply.

Against her prompting, against the class's stunned reaction, Vincent struggled for an answer. It had to be something witty enough to lighten the oppressive climate, but also uncomplicated enough so that everyone was sure to understand. He could not think of a single response.

Finally, after far too long a pause, he said, "No, Trudy, I'm at least six years older than you and I'm also your teacher. I would say you have no chance."

Trudy, still beaming, remained undaunted by this answer. "Thank you," she said, smiling resolutely, bowing into her seat as if she'd just been granted a compliment.

After the hour had finished, the class president and vice president stayed behind in the room.

"Teacher Vincent, we apologize for our classmate," the president said. "She has a...a..."

"...a broken thing in her mind," the vice president interjected.

"What kind of broken thing?" Vincent asked. He was curious now that the room's tension had dissipated.

The president thought hard, rubbed her index finger and thumb together as if she could produce words with this kind of friction. The vice president flipped through her dictionary. They leaned their heads together and consulted a moment.

"Don't know how to say in English," the president said.

The class met again the following Thursday, a windy, overcast shadow of a day. Vincent arrived at the academy and as he made his way across the courtyard, he heard a timorous voice call out his name. He turned and saw Trudy jogging toward him from the east wing, holding her uniform skirt against her legs so that it did not flip unexpectedly in the wind. Apparently, she had raced well ahead of her classmates in order to gain his attention before he stepped into the building. She slowed to a walk, a prettily cautious stride, and smoothed out her disheveled hair, which had been cut unevenly in ragged layers, like a farmboy's.

"Teacher Vincent," she said, out of breath and looking down at the courtyard pavement. "I'm sorry I said the thing to you on Tuesday. I said the thing so my classmates would laugh. I'm sorry your face became pink. I think I must be a very stupid girl."

Her entire manner was one of such humility and overwhelming shyness that Vincent felt immediately uneasy for her. He suspected that her classmates had put her up to this apology. Perhaps they had all confronted her after the incident and made her feel far worse than was necessary. "It's nothing. Just forget about it," Vincent consoled her. "I knew you were joking."

Her eyes remained fixed on the pavement.

"Really," he said. "There's nothing to feel bad about now."

She sighed then and lifted her head a bit, the corners of her mouth creasing outward in a faint suggestion of a smile.

In class, Vincent drilled the students on their use of comparative adjectives. Cindy is honest, but George is more honest. Mary is the most honest of them all. The girls chimed along. Later, as he gave instructions for an upcoming speech assignment, he observed Trudy seeking his attention with vehement waves of her hand. He wasn't yet ready to begin taking questions. Still, there was something peculiarly urgent in the way she waited for him to call on her. She held her hand high and tracked him with a tenacious gaze.

"Teacher Vincent," she said aloud, interrupting the class. She had already risen to her feet, and Vincent decided against criticizing her for the interruption and hoped instead that this was some kind of attempt to redeem herself in the eyes of her classmates. "Yes?" he asked.

She cleared her throat and said, "Mary is a splendid swimmer, but George is a more splendid swimmer. Teacher Vincent is the most splendid swimmer of them all."

"That's correct," Vincent said. "That's very good."

"Yes, it is," she agreed. "And I would very much like to see you swimming in the blue ocean. Do you know why I plan to see you swimming there?"

The class was well aware that things had gone amiss. The president and vice president exchanged pained expressions. More than a few of Trudy's classmates were trying to signal her quiet with their fingers pressed tightly against their lips.

"No, but I want you to stop — "

"Because!" she said, and the exultant pitch of her voice rang out over his. "Because I would very much like to see the lovely muscles of your body."

"All right," he sighed. "That's enough already."

"I'm thinking about you now," Trudy said, lowering her pale eyelids and bowing her head in concentration. "You're in the ocean. I see you there, all alone, and I see that you really are the most splendid swimmer."

"That's enough," Vincent ordered. "Sit down, Trudy." The forcefulness in his voice proved unnecessary. She was already stooping down, easing casually into her chair. Vincent took a moment to compose himself and then went back to discussing the short speech assignment due the following week. The girls, with the exception of Trudy, sat dumbstruck and frozen, their embarrassment, their shame, acute and, as always, shared. It wasn't until almost the end of the lesson that any kind of natural rhythm returned to the class. When the bell rang, Trudy rose and filed out the door as if nothing had happened.

Over the weekend, Vincent worried about Trudy's speech project, what her topic might be and into which distressing avenues she might digress. What stayed with him most was Trudy's remarkable composure during both her apology and her outburst. All weekend he wavered back and forth, unable to decide when she had been acting and when she had been earnest.

His anxiety turned out to be uncalled for. Trudy did not attend class Tuesday or the following Thursday. When she did not show the next week, Vincent asked the class president if Trudy was ill.

"No," the president said. "Now Trudy goes every day to the other Toulio high school."

"Why is that?"

"Well," the president said. "Please wait a minute and I'll tell you." She stepped up to the board and wrote out a single character. As if on cue, all her classmates pulled out their Chinese-English dictionaries and raced to find the translation.

Violet Two found the entry first. "Ex-pel or kick out," she reported.

"Yes," the president said. "She made big problems in one, two, three other classes. Not just your class. So the principal said good-bye, Trudy." The other girls giggled and nodded accordingly. Perhaps they had seen her expulsion coming. At the very least they appeared to relish the principal's decision. Now, they leaned back in their seats and exchanged ecstatic tidbits of gossip.

Vincent saw surprisingly little of Gloria outside the ministry classroom. They did not often go out for meals together; Gloria preferred simple noodle and rice dishes, which she prepared in the ministry kitchen. Moreover, their sleeping hours were nearly opposite. Vincent, always an early riser, was frequently in bed before eleven o'clock. As he prepared himself for sleep, he would find Gloria in the kitchen mixing a towering mug of instant coffee. She would offer a cordial good night and then retreat to her odd supply-closet bedroom. With the door closed tight, she turned on her bright work lamp. Vincent could see a narrow band of light upon the threshold. Then he heard music seeping through the thin walls. She had brought to Toulio both a tape player and a small library of cassettes, a collection of her favorite songs all recorded from the same Christian radio station in Nebraska. Between songs were snatches of recorded commentary from a silk-voiced announcer: That was Melinda Collins Young with "My Mother's Angel Eyes" and this is the voice of faith and religious freedom transmitting out of Omaha, across the highways and byways and fields of ripe corn into your homes, into your ears, and into your hearts.

Vincent drifted off to sleep lulled by the soft murmur of this voice, and if he woke early enough, he might shamble downstairs in the predawn darkness and find Gloria's light still on, the tape player turned down to a soft hush. He could hear her riffling through papers, the shuffle of her feet on the concrete floor. Soon, she would switch off the light and fall into bed and not emerge from her room until midafternoon. While she slept, Vincent moved about the ground floor, easing himself from one room to another with light, judicious steps.

One evening he discovered Gloria's thick-leafed artist sketchbook on the living room tea table. She was not one for leaving her things scattered about the rooms; in fact, during her first month in the ministry house, she had revealed herself to be an even more secretive and reclusive housemate than Alec. In the bathroom, she kept her soap, toothpaste, and shampoo in a waterproof box beneath the sink. Her coffee and creamer and her groceries, dry foods and perishables alike, were sequestered in various corners of the cupboard and refrigerator. She had never warned Vincent about borrowing or examining these items, but he understood, implicitly, that she regarded her possessions as separate and private.

He opened the sketchbook and peered inside.

Each page contained ten neat rows of calligraphy, ten characters per row, every character recorded with painstaking precision one hundred times. He turned a dozen more pages and was struck by the sheer ardor of Gloria's effort, her devotion to minute detail. Several pages appeared indistinguishable until closer inspection unveiled subtle differences between two seemingly identical sets of characters: an arcing tail that flourished right rather than left, three top-sided garnishing strikes instead of two.

He heard the front door swing open and the low scuffing of Gloria's footsteps on the kitchen floor. He had ample time to close the sketchbook and center it on the table, but there was still the imposing question of what exactly he was doing there on the sofa, the sketchbook the only possible object of interest within arm's length. She nodded toward him and uttered, "Hey, Vincent," as she treaded to her modest bedroom. She stopped and turned. "Hey," she said again. "Did I leave that out?"

"I guess you did," Vincent said. He picked up the sketchbook and held it out. The guilty pressure of it against his fingers caused him to admit his treachery. "I glanced through it, I mean, I hope you don't mind, but it really shows your hard work. I don't know much about writing characters, but it all seems very precise."

Gloria accepted the book, the cast of her face as unreadable as ever. She flipped through several pages examining her own calligraphy. "It's harder than it looks. It's — I'm not bragging, but I've come a long way in eighteen months. You know I'm working from the same set of primers the kids use in school. About every two months I move up to another grade level. Do you know what that means? I'm learning the same vocabulary a student in Taiwan learns in one school year, except I'm learning it in two months."

"That's terrific. And what grade are you in now?"

"Soon I'll be in the fifth grade," she said solemnly. "It takes the average foreigner five years to become fluent enough to read a newspaper. If I keep at this pace, I'll be reading newspapers in less than a year. And I'll be doing other things, too."

"Like what?" Vincent asked.

"Well, translation for one thing, and something else." She ran her fingers along the sketchbook's metal spirals. "It's a special project I'm working on in my spare time. I showed it to Reverend Phillips and he likes the idea. A lot," she added. "Do you want to see it?"

"All right."

She made a beeline for her room and returned a moment later with another sketchbook. She sat beside Vincent on the wooden sofa and in her enthusiasm leaned intrusively against his left shoulder. He could smell the perfumed scent of her hair mixed with a more earthy, metallic odor of black ink.

She placed the sketchbook on the table before him, but held her hand on the cover. "I want to explain a few things before you look," she said eagerly. "What we're doing in Taiwan is trying to bring the Word of God to as many people as we can, young or old, men or women, whomever. But I really think, Vincent, that our best chance is with the teenagers. I mean, we should try for everyone, but the odds are better with adolescents because they already like things from America — you know, movies and music, pop culture things, right?"

"Right," Vincent echoed.

"Well, one of the things they really enjoy are these things like comic books, except they're not just comic books, they're longer and more involved. They're called graphic novels and the idea came from Japan. The kids read them all the time and the bookstores in Taipei are just full of them. My idea is to create a Christian graphic novel for the youth of Taiwan."

She raised the cover to reveal a collage of neatly framed boxes. The illustrations within these boxes were as precise as her calligraphy. One displayed the outline of Taiwan drifting forlornly in the East China Sea. In the corner, a motherly faced angel gazed down on the island with gracious good intent. Every box contained a kindred symbol of Christianity, a glowing Bible or cross that radiated light into darker corners of the panel. Gloria flipped ahead to a vast and intricately designed illustration that occupied an entire page. "This is the big one," she said. "This is the one I've worked hardest on. When it's published, it'll take up two pages in the book."

Vincent's eyes descended first to the center of the drawing, a Chinese boy and girl standing beside each other with calm, purposeful expressions. One held a Bible, the other a cross. Standing behind them and resting one hand on each of their shoulders was a Caucasian woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gloria. It was a finely detailed likeness with one exception: instead of Gloria's true-life wooden demeanor, her cartoon twin had been granted a face of extraordinary articulation, the eyes wide and deeply etched, brimming with emotion, a smile both confident and supremely generous.

What remained of the drawing fell away into two halves. The right side featured a temple celebration that had escalated into a grimly frantic revelry of worship. Firepot flames were enhanced so that they twisted upward, casting discordant light onto garish sculptures of temple gods. The ceremony participants either paraded, Druidlike, between temple columns or stood on the periphery of the fire, their eyebrows canting downward in fierce concentration. The left half formed a mosaic of Taiwan's social ills: three prostitutes loitering outside a massage parlor, a drunken businessman slumped beside a cigarette vendor's cart, a gambler waving an angry fist at his pachinko machine. They all appeared as residents of a particularly corrupt neighborhood populated by street thugs and derelicts. On the corner of one cartoon avenue, Vincent spotted a white-robed Buddhist monk, his shoulders slumped in defeat, his forearms extended outward in tremulous self-doubt.

"Wow," Vincent whispered. His eyes drifted back to Gloria's radiant self-portrait. "This is really something, Gloria. This is, well...this is very strong stuff."

"You don't like it?" she asked stiffly. She shifted her weight away from him and reached out to close the sketchbook.

"It's not that," he said. "You're a really fine artist, but I've been to temples. I've seen celebrations with firepots, and it's not quite like this. I guess what I'm saying is the message is really strong."

"Well, don't you think the message needs to be strong?"

"I suppose you're right," Vincent conceded. He now had a taste of her contentiousness, a preview of what might easily become a strained, impersonal life with Gloria in the ministry house.

"It feels right to me. I'm not afraid to be direct with the Chinese. I think they expect that of Americans. That's why we have to be up front with these people, Vincent. We represent millions of Christians in America they're never going to meet. There's a lot of things in this town that worry me. And it's not just the gambling and all the weird stuff that goes on in the temples. Yesterday, I saw that other American guy, that friend of yours, riding around with a Chinese girl on his motorcycle."

"He's a Scotsman. His name is Alec."

"That hardly matters, because she was leaning right up against him, had her arms all over him. And that's what infuriates me, because the Chinese are going to think we're the same as him."

"Not if they get to know us."

"Well, how many of them do know us? We have about fifteen students coming to the house for lessons, but what about everyone else in town? That's why I think we need to make ourselves more visible. That's why I'm going to tell you about an idea I have."

Vincent closed his eyes a moment, a meditation of patience. Another idea, he thought, get ready.

"I think we should start visiting people in their homes and introducing the Word of God. I've seen the Mormons do it in Taipei and I think they've had good luck with it."

"No," Vincent said. "It's an intrusive way to try and win people over. And besides that, I'm too busy right now."

"We can go out in the afternoons before you teach. I'll set my alarm clock and start getting up earlier. Please, Vincent, I really think this can work, but I need your help." By now the irritation had seeped out of her voice, and she turned toward him, tilting her head pleadingly to one side. It was an appeal meant to be girlishly endearing, though it struck Vincent as hollow and therefore somewhat unsettling.

"No, I still don't think it's a good idea."

"Please. Let's just give it a try."

"I'm sorry."

"We'll go out one afternoon, and if it doesn't work, I won't bother you with it again, all right?"

"No, I'm afraid it's not all right."

"One afternoon. That's all I'm asking."

He shook his head and sighed.

"Please," she said. "I'm not going to let up. That's the kind of person I am. You're just going to have to say yes."

"I thought I'd made it clear how I feel about — "

"Just say yes and I'll stop all of this and we'll both feel better."

"All right...yes. I'll go out one time and one time only."

"Oh good, Vincent. That's so sweet of you. That's all I wanted to hear, that one little yes."

At the Ming-da Academy, Trudy's class now carried on without her. In Vincent's mind there was little difference: only the element of unsavory surprise had been eliminated. The remaining forty-one girls were as forthright as ever, their maroon jackets pressed and worn crisply across their narrow backs, their bright, untroubled faces turned toward him.

The language laboratory contained a VCR and a series of half-hour English-language programs. After viewing these, the girls were generally positive, but again their language ability outrivaled the programs' curriculum of mild cartoons and giddy puppets. Next, he rented and showed the class E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Just as he expected, they were enchanted by the homely visitor from space. Vincent paused the tape after the first half hour and stepped before the class with a prepared sheet of questions. He glanced at the seating chart and called on Cookie.

"Please describe E.T. Where does he come from and what does he look like?"

Cookie rose sheepishly to her feet. "E.T. is a man from the stars. He is a small man. He is not a handsome man. I cannot think of one thing that he looks like. He has a true and lovely heart. My classmates and I like everything about him, but there is one thing we do not like."

"What's that?"

"Teacher Vincent, we do not like you to stop the movie."

The class applauded her announcement, and Vincent set the stalled picture back into motion. Before long E.T.'s adventure on Earth took a perilous turn. When he was discovered ashen-colored and unconscious beneath a highway embankment, the entire class released a collective groan of anxiety. Later, when he died on the operating table, they were all thrown headlong into despair. Yet still, a glimmer of hope endured. A warm, pulsing light began to bloom inside E.T.'s chest.

This was a moment Vincent cherished. He was sitting opposite the class behind his desk. He was not interested in the least in watching E.T.'s resurrection or in drawing attention to its likeness to Christ's own resurrection. Instead, he studied their fascination, the fall and rise of their sentiments, watched as their unguarded expressions became charged with the naked emotional beauty women reveal only to their most intimate friends and family members. E.T. shimmered back to life and in the passing of a few heartbeats their lovely, captivated faces went from sorrow to bewilderment, to a nearly unnameable emotion that verged on reverence. At last, E.T. rose up from his sickbed, and they were swept away by wild, contagious joy.

After the movie ended, they sat stunned in their seats for a moment then collected their books and papers and filed dreamily out the door. Vincent sat at his desk and began poring over the girls' handwritten speech assignments. From the classroom next door, he could hear Jonathan Hwang leading a chorus of students through an English nursery rhyme. He also heard a polite "Excuse me" and looked up to find Trudy standing before him. She now wore a stiff black uniform, the same design and insignia that Shao-fei wore to Toulio Provincial High School.

"Teacher Vincent, I ride here to see you because I want to ask you an important question." She sat down in the empty chair beside him, quite close.

"All right," Vincent said. "Go ahead." The language laboratory was an audience of vacant chairs.

"What is your plan for Saturday afternoon?"

"Well, that's the day I grade papers and plan lessons."

"What is your plan for Sunday afternoon?"

"Well, I'm not sure now but — "

"My family," she interjected, "is excited to meet you. So they plan a lunch dinner for you. Fish, shrimp, pig's feet, good Chinese food. I think Sunday is a good day."

"That's nice of your family, but are you sure they want to have a visitor now? I mean, aren't your parents upset about you going to a different school?"

Trudy wrinkled her eyebrows at the oddness of his question. "No, my father doesn't worry about that thing. He worries about other things. He worries about having the chance to meet you. He's very excited to meet you, Vincent. Can you make the plan on Sunday?"

It was clear he should say no, should fabricate an excuse or refuse outright, and then, in the wake of days to come, recast the visit as theory. In this form, he could ponder what would have happened but didn't with equal measures of whimsy and gratitude.

"You need to tell me how to get to your house," he said.

"My father and brother and me are coming to drive you there. We have a car," she said proudly.

"Then you need to know where I live." He reached for a piece of paper.

"Oh, I already know that, Vincent. Everybody knows where you live."

Copyright © 2004 by John Dalton

Meet the Author

John Dalton is the author of the novel, Heaven Lake, winner of the Barnes and Noble 2004 Discover Award in fiction and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a member of the English faculty at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he teaches in their MFA Writing Program. John lives with his wife and two daughters in St. Louis.

Brief Biography

Carrboro, North Carolina
Date of Birth:
December 10, 1963
Place of Birth:
St. Louis, Missouri
B.A. in English, University of Missouri, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Iowa, 1993

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Heaven Lake 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SANDRA37 More than 1 year ago
CathyB More than 1 year ago
The trials and tribulations of a young, Christian volunteer and English teacher, Vincent Saunders. I found the storyline to be somewhat predictable and the characters not very likable; however, the descriptions of the various locales were beautiful. I would recommend to those interested in missionary life and traveling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dalton spent years and years writing this novel and the prose reflexs his effort, but after the first third of the book the story and the characters turn from fun and quirky into boring and over blown. Hopefully in his next novel he will continue to write beautifully, but with more interesting characters and events.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was rather disappointed by this highly-rated first novel for several reasons. First, and most important, the book is quite stereotypical in its characterization of Asians. Having been to many countries there (including Taiwan and China), I was very dismayed that Asians are portrayed as shallow, zenophobic, and self-serving. The protagonist, Vincent, comes across as a weak and somewhat despicable lost soul, which is just fine except the overall plot is highly unbelievable. His hashish-head friend is another unlikeable character in a book that, while well written, is very unsatisfying. Although I finished the book, which was a chore to say the least, I would not recommend this book for serious readers. Maybe it got its award because of its accomplished prose (like many Pulitzer winners, such as Gilead), but to me it was a waste of time to read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Vincent Saunders is a character that the reader can relate to, although his circumstances are extreme. As he finds his way through the mire of spirituality and morality, the reader is at once sympathetic to his flaunderings and protective of his innocence. Dalton has written a consistant, rich novel that is void of 'dull' spots.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't bear to stomach this novel. I couldn't even get past the writing because the entire content was so disrespectful to the Asian culture. It's just chock full of exoticism. I couldn't believe someone thought it was okay to write so ignorantly about a culture with such a thinly veiled curtain of asiaphilia.
Guest More than 1 year ago
John Dalton has written an excellent first novel that I found a bit uneven In structure but always entertaining with several surprise plot twists along the way. Our hero of the tale is Vincent how as a recent college grad volunteers for Christian work in Taiwan. But this is no story about faith above all, but instead it is about character. How does Vincent develop character is what Dalton is about here. Vincent is really sheltered sole although not completely an innocent when he arrives in country and finds he can not live without making a few bad value judgments. He is turned off by the hard core believer who is sent to help him and attracted by friendship to a pot smoking Scotsman Alex he shares a rooming house with. The central plot point of the book is that Vincent accepts a mission to marry a mainland girl from a remote village so she can get out of the country to marry Mr. Gwa, who presents himself as a wealthy businessman who wants to learn English. As far fetched as this whole idea goes, and to why Vincent would say yes to such a mission is the spine of the narrative. I recommend the book and only have the following reservations. I found the center section a bit slow and heavy on traveling situations that although entertaining did no drive the story forward. And I found the ending less than satisfying although I am not sure I could come up with one that was any better. This is an enjoyable if not great novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What causes one to wander into a bookshop and select the one perfect book to fill some unnamed empty niche of the inner spirit? I don't know, but on one lucky day this is what happened to me. John Dalton's novel accomplished this through a marvelously crafted tale of longing, intrigue, and the search for personal fulfillment. While Dalton obviously concentrates on telling the story, he crams the book with an abundance of brilliantly written sentences and paragraphs. Time and again, I found myself exclaiming, 'How can someone put words together this beautifully?!' His words flow smoothly across the page like a silky seed rides the spring breeze. This book, however, is more than plot, character, and climax. It is deep and revelatory. Having bicycled across China in 1983, I found Dalton's descriptions of the landscape, people, and situations to be credible.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Normally, I read one or two books per week. I cruise through them, without too much emotion or excitement. But, John Dalton book Heaven Lake's is compelling, exciting, and urging me to turn the page, and slowly digest each sentence, and paragraph to its fullest. I have never been to china, but he makes me want to travel to the far east, to experience the culture.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this was really a great book. for the majority of it the author leads you to believe one thing about the main character - weakness - only in the end to put a surprising twist to the tale and leave you with a smile. the overwhelming theme of loss is prevalant and incessant throughout the whole of the novel, and yet somehow the author leaves you with an ineffable feeling of hope and gladness for the characters. one can only look forward to his next work.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought the book because the locale was Taiwan and China. I found the descriptions of the county so vivid I could actually recreate the smells and sound that I remember from being in Taiwan.The deftly written story held me in its grasp the whole time. When I finished reading, I felt as though I knew Vincent and for days now have thought about the relationships in the book and how the struggles of his life led him to a better understanding of himself. A 'can't put down' book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a story of coming of age and love, wherein Dalton's young protagonist, Vincent Saunders, faces a series of intriguing, belief shaking and character building eperiences, falters often, learns much, and grows. This novel, which teaches as much as it entertains, is the best I have read in over 15 years. Its obvious that Mr. Dalton labored to craft every sentence of this novel, if not every word, with respect and affection for the reader, to create something not just worthy of our time and money, but a novel we can learn from and carry with us. Heaven Lake ought also to serve as an inspiration to all new writers--look what you can do! This is your standard! Dalton has the ability to probe a character like John Updike and the ability to suspend belief like John Irving, but this John brings to the reader something sweeter, more tender, and pleasing, capable of even jerking a tear from a 55 year old cynic like me. I would suggest this quintessential novel should make it to the required list of all good college modern fiction courses. Vincent is a natural progression from Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield. I want my 22 year old son to read this book! I must say that usually I am a tough sell when it comes to modern fiction, and this effusive praise comes from one who has often abandoned half unread much of what I have run across in recent years, and I rarely find anything worth recommending to others (I have never written a comment before.) But I will be doing two things with Heaven Lake I have rarely done. First, I have already started to read it a second time, just to further understand better how he accomplished it. And secondly, I'll be buying more copies-one pristine copy I hope he'll sign to compliment the one I am going to wear out apparently, and one (or more when the paperback is out) to push on my friends and family. This book will obviously have a broad appeal, and rightly so. Oh, and Mr. Publisher, please place a caution sticker on the face of Heaven Lake--'Please do not read while driving the interstate or in heavy traffic!' I owe some fellow commuters an apology, having bought the book on a Sunday I had to finish it on a working day!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I know John Dalton; in fact, I knew him long before he attended the Iowa Writer¿s Workshop, long before he moved to Taiwan to teach English, long before he bravely traveled deep into the heart of contemporary China. Now, I am not a writer (I¿m a teacher), but I want you to know that Heaven Lake is a wonderful, richly rewarding novel. I say this because John labored on this narrative for nearly ten years. He wrote and rewrote sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, discovering (long after his graduate degree had been awarded) what it meant to craft a literary novel that would entertain readers and reach a broad audience. John could have easily sold Heaven Lake to a lesser publishing house years ago. My feeling is that such a publication would have disappeared quickly. In fact, I read an earlier version of the novel in 1996. I didn¿t hate it, but I knew in my heart it would not be something I would want to pick up at the bookstore, investing my money and my time. I remember how hard it was to tell John this earlier version did not work for me. Our friendship managed to survived, but I was banned from reading his work for years. He wouldn¿t let me look at it again until the summer of 2002, and, well, I was worried. What if I still disliked it? Would I lie to one of my closest friends? I knew in my heart that I couldn¿t and, thankfully, such concerns were quickly discarded. Heaven Lake proved to be an entertaining, absorbing, emotionally resonant and compelling read. I was hooked by the complex characters and the epic scope of the narrative. Let me put it in perspective. I read Heaven Lake during the same month that I read The Lovely Bones, and I¿m here to tell you there is no comparison. Heaven Lake is by far the greater novel, and anyone looking for a suspenseful page-turner, full of rich, multi-dimensional characters, evocative cultural detail, and a wry sense of humor will be rewarded for giving this debut novel, from a novelist worthy of our attention, its due.