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River of Dust: A Novel

River of Dust: A Novel

5.0 7
by Virginia Pye

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On the windswept plains of northwestern China, Mongol bandits swoop down upon an American missionary couple and steal their small child. The Reverend sets out in search of the boy and becomes lost in the rugged, corrupt countryside populated by opium dens, sly nomadic warlords and traveling circuses. This upright Midwestern minister develops a following among the


On the windswept plains of northwestern China, Mongol bandits swoop down upon an American missionary couple and steal their small child. The Reverend sets out in search of the boy and becomes lost in the rugged, corrupt countryside populated by opium dens, sly nomadic warlords and traveling circuses. This upright Midwestern minister develops a following among the Chinese peasants and is christened Ghost Man for what they perceive are his otherworldly powers. Grace, his young ingénue wife, pregnant with their second child, takes to her sick bed in the mission compound, where visions of her stolen child and lost husband begin to beckon to her from across the plains. The foreign couple’s savvy and dedicated Chinese servants, Ahcho and Mai Lin, accompany and eventually lead them through dangerous territory to find one another again. With their Christian beliefs sorely tested, their concept of fate expanded, and their physical health rapidly deteriorating, the Reverend and Grace may finally discover an understanding between them that is greater than the vast distance they have come.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A vividly imagined and beautifully drawn picture of the life of Christian missionaries in China in the early 20th century.” — Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China; co-author, Mao: the Unknown Story

“A gemstone of a novel...River of Dust is a masterpiece.” - Caroline Leavitt

“The entire novel ultimately becomes an analogy for grief over a lost child, and China is simply the treacherous, foreign landscape on which it is laid. In the end, the sense of adventure beckons the characters more than the sense of loss buries them. Pye’s hand manages to paint a rather naked response to what it means to move forward with only a sort of faithless hope.” — Style Weekly

“Terrific, tremendous, wonderful…a strong, beautiful, deep book.” — Annie Dillard

“Virginia Pye’s River of Dust is a remarkable novel in the ways that delight me the most: It has a compelling narrative voice, a dynamic story and a deep resonance into the universal human condition, all of which is inextricably bound together. This is a major work by a splendid writer.” — Robert Olen Butler

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Read an Excerpt

The Reverend loomed over the barren plain. He stared at the blank horizon as if in search of something, although to Grace’s eyes, nothing of significance was out there. Sunset burned his silhouette into a vast and gaudy sky. Standing tall in his long coat on the porch above his wife and son, he appeared to be a giant—grand and otherworldly. Perhaps this was how the Chinese saw him, she thought.

Her husband spread his arms toward the blazing clouds and shadowed flatlands as if to say that all this was now in the Lord’s embrace.

The breeze shifted, and billows of smoke circled their way. Grace watched the Reverend’s outline waft and shimmer. She would not have been surprised if his body had gone up in flames right there before her eyes, ignited in a holy conflagration with only a pile of ash left behind to mark his time on this earth. Grace shook the strange notion from her mind, although she wondered how so good a man could appear so sinister in such glorious light.

As he started down the porch steps, Grace roused their sleeping child from beside her on the seat of the buckboard. “We’re here,” she whispered. “Our sweet vacation home.”

The boy opened his pale blue eyes and blinked. How would it appear to someone so young? Grace wondered. Desolate or full of potential—she could not know. The Reverend lifted the boy from her arms and swung him high on his shoulders, Wesley’s favorite perch. He rubbed his cheeks and surveyed the endless plain.

Meet the Author

Virginia Pye holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has taught writing at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. A three-term president of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia, she writes award-winning short stories that have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, Tampa Review and The Baltimore Review.

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River of Dust 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel is not for the feint of heart, but it's an exceptional exotic story of heartache, pain, perseverance and devotion on both the physical and spiritual level. Well worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
With a novel set in 1910 in Northwestern China, Pye successfully reanimates the ghosts of American missionaries (Reverend Watson and Grace, his wife) struggling to overcome hungers of the soul in a beautiful, bitter, landscape and among a starved and separate culture. Pye's ability to craft unique characters, images, themes, and plot will stay with you, just like the fine dust of the Gobi desert that can never be entirely cleaned away .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pye’s sophisticated and eloquent use of language captured my attention on every level; very emotionally engaging & intellectually intriguing. In my mind’s eye, I was captivated by the images elicited by her writing.She is very adept at developing depth and complexity in her characters. Kudos to you Miss Pye. Can’t wait for your next novel!
Litwriter More than 1 year ago
Pick up a copy of River of Dust and prepare to be transported to a land and time so far from contemporary experience as to seem near-mythic. The story of the Reverend and his pregnant wife Grace, missionaries in 1910 China, opens with a shocking event: Mongolian nomads kidnap their toddler son Wesley. From that moment, the couple’s quest to bring Christianity to Shansi Province is accompanied and eventually overshadowed by the search for their missing child. As the story’s point of view shifts among the Reverend, his faithful manservant Ahcho, increasingly fragile Grace, and her canny nursemaid Mai Lin, the reader begins to understand that the missionaries’ zealous efforts face daunting obstacles: longstanding tribal traditions and superstitions and the merciless environment, increasingly ravaged by drought. As the Reverend persists in his frustrating and often perilous forays into the wilderness in search of his son, Grace grows ever weaker as tuberculosis sets in and a difficult pregnancy further taxes her waning strength. The idealistic husband and wife slowly change as the rigors of their mission and loss of their son draw them apart, both physically and spiritually. Pye skillfully exposes the core of her characters, their emotional and physical burdens, in measured prose that’s pitch-perfect for the time period and unique personalities.  Over the course of the story, the arid landscape and its inexorable power over its inhabitants becomes a character in itself, ancient and obdurate, immune to human actions and hubris. Throughout the novel, the Reverend is referred to as Ghost Man, a name spoken, initially with reverence, then increasingly with suspicion, anger, and scorn. But it is Grace who ultimately sheds her fears and regret, summons what remains of her strength and makes peace with the ghosts, who no longer haunt, but comfort, welcoming her home.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this story. The characters were described so well that I could imagine what they looked like, and how they presented themselves. I could feel their emotions as they faced such huge obstacles. I had to stay up reading until I finished it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a beautifully written novel and a deep and intricate character study.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Literary fiction opens doors to extraordinary journeys. Set in northwestern China in 1910, River of Dust is ostensibly about the search for a three-year-old boy wrestled from his mother’s arms as his father tries buying off the bandits with his gold watch. The more powerful inner story is the alienation of the bereft young American parents, from one another, from the texture of their missionary community, and from what and who they were before that stunning seizure ripped them apart. The leitmotif of the novel is loss—profound and unalterable loss—and the gradual abandonment and renunciation of one’s personal myth. The couple is left without moorings. Their separate disintegration is told in unsparing detail. Small finely wrought moments of guilt and shame, of sudden violence and unexpected grace, are reminiscent of the fiction of Somerset Maughan.    For narrator and reader alike, the specter of that lost child is felt throughout the novel. His absence haunts like the pull of a nightmare that will not let go. If only time could be reversed, the moment Grace was running toward safety with the child still clutched in her arms. “She might as well have been standing still, for the young man barely slowed his horse as he swooped down over her. He grabbed Wesley’s arm and pulled. The boy held on to her neck for as long as he could. He cried out as his mother and the bandit fought over him. But finally, the barbarian stopped toying with Grace and simply yanked her son away.” “Literary fiction, by its nature, “ Terrence Rafferty reminds us, “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” River of Dust is such a novel. It is an extraordinary work, exposing the highs and lows of human nature. Human character changes, perhaps not “sudden and definite,” as Virginia Woolf states in the opening quote, but there are times when there is a shift, a discernible shift in human relations—“those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children.” The power of River of Dust lies in the fine rendering of those shifts—the impotence of a man controlled by guilt and shame, the resignation of a bereaved mother—and the juxtaposition of luminous language and terrible truths.