City of Tranquil Light is an enthralling love story about two people, their adopted country and their God--a deceptively straightforward novel told in powerful, profound prose. It's based on the life of Bo Caldwell's maternal grandparents, who were missionaries in China and Taiwan from 1906 to 1961. In melding fiction and truth, we learn about remarkable lives, but also sense that we are discovering what Caldwell herself has learned of life and love and faith.
In 1906, Will Kiehn feels called to leave his young life as an Oklahoma farmer to go to China, where he falls in love with a fellow missionary, Katherine. They marry and live an eventful life, as one would expect; we're drawn deeply into their lives, the townspeople's lives, the Chinese civil wars and a faith that grows deeper through both tragedies and miracles.
The North China Plain city of Kuang P’ing Ch'eng, City of Tranquil Light--walled with four gates, in sharp silhouette against the horizon, the air smelling of smoke and the sweet clean scent of ripening winter wheat--is often in Will's mind as he thinks about his life; he's now widowed and living in a retirement home in California, where he reads the Bible in Chinese, more at home with it than English, just as his Chinese name, Kung P'ei Te, seems more a part of him than his legal name.
On his dresser is a photograph of his Shanghai wedding day in 1908, and his wife's diary, whose pages he now knows as well as his beloved Scriptures. As Will thinks back on the years he spent in China, where he first envisioned himself preaching to huge crowds and baptizing eager converts, never imagining the hardships and sorrows that awaited him, the story unfolds through his reminiscences and Katherine's diary. And what a story it is. "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."
Will is a modest man, ordinary, "an unlikely missionary." Katherine is a nurse, and as they settle into the countryside, where the introduction to their new land is swift and brutal, Katherine begins to treat patients. Will, meanwhile, soon questions his calling, and falls ill from both homesickness and shock at witnessing the beheading of three men. He's not encouraged by his evangelistic efforts, but finally has a convert who comes to God by way of the buttons on Will's Chinese jacket. But after a few years, Will stops thinking of China as an interlude, and calls it home.
In 1916, they have a daughter; a year later she is dead from dysentery; the shipments of medicine that could have saved her had been stolen. One hot day in July, Will is traveling between villages and finds himself at a drowning pool, a place where people dispose of unwanted infants. As he gazes at the bodies, he falls to the ground, overcome finally by exhaustion, grief at Lily's death and the horror of the small bodies. He wakes up in a cell, having been beaten by bandits. Held captive for more than a month, he converses with the bandit chief, Hsiao Lao, who wants Will to heal his son. Will treats the boy, and like the fable of the thorn pulled from the lion's paw (and "Hsiao Lao" means "Laughing Tiger"), his actions will rebound when the bandit chief reappears in most unexpected ways.
Bandits who decimate villages, soldiers who do the same, famine, drought, floods, war, earthquakes, bloodshed, death, sickness--these lives are abundant in suffering, but short of funds and supplies. In 1928, the country is at war; when soldiers take over their town, Katherine, caring for the wounded, offers the blessings of opium and faith and thanks God for both. The takeover culminates in a heart-stopping scene in their compound, where belief, sacrifice and a surprising gift from God meet.
Finally, Will and Katherine realize they have to leave China in order to protect the townspeople as the Communists take control. It breaks their hearts, because they are now leaving family. When Will pays one last visit to his daughter's grave, China and God have a parting miracle for him.
In his 80s, Will remembers what Katherine wrote inside the cover of her Bible: "We often wait for God with hope. But sometimes we must wait for hope... and it always comes." With hope Will finds a peace with unanswered questions, even as he still longs for his wife and his true country. But his life has been and still is colored by unexpected moments of grace and a belief that God's love will never let him go.--Marilyn Dahl
Shelf Talker: A beautiful and moving novel about a missionary couple in China, a story of profound love and faith.