Last year very early in the year, I made a prediction: that Unbroken would be my favorite book of the year, and I was right. It was. I’m about to make another prediction, and I am just as sure of this one as I was sure of last year’s: City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell is this year’s number one pick, and it will join the ranks of Unbroken and a few others as one of the very best books I’ve ever read. While Unbroken left me very nearly speechless, City of Tranquil Light leaves me wanting to discuss the story and its implications for my life as a Christian, and most especially to share quotes, passages that I absolutely love.
City of Tranquil Light is fiction based on the lives of Bo Caldwell‘s grandparents, missionaries to China and Taiwan from 1906 to 1961. In the book, Will and Katherine Kiehn are Mennonite missionaries in China until the 1930s when the political situation in China makes it imperative for them to return to the U.S. The years in China, though, are the joy, delight, the very essence, of their lives. An elderly Will says this:
A strange sort of arithmetic is at work in my life. While the calendar tells me that Katherine and I spent twenty-seven years in China, that thirty-three years have passed since we left [. . .], these numbers do not ring true. I feel instead like a man who lived nearly all his life in China, with a few of his later years in America [. . .] Also, the longer I am away from Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, the more my mind dwells there. My room here is on the west side of the building, the one closest to China, something that perhaps sounds foolish but that nevertheless pleases me. Each morning when I begin my daily walk, I start out by heading west, toward China. At times my life there seems almost imagined; bandits and soldiers and magistrates, floods and droughts and famines and war, seem as distant as the moon. On other days it is the present that feels imagined and Kuang P’ing Ch’eng that seems more real than the poached egg and toast I ate for breakfast. Certain smells make China instantly real to me: anything cooked with garlic, freshly cut wood, antiseptic, the crispness of the air on the first autumn day. These scents stop me in my tracks. (280)
This reminds me of Genesis 29:20, the story of Jacob and Rachel:
And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.
This is both a love song to China and a love sing about Will and Katherine. Their relationship is very realistically drawn, with natural ups and downs and real-life griefs and disappointments. Through it all–the grief of losing a child, the years of want and danger in China, homesickness and old age back in the U.S.–their love for and faithfulness to God and to each other simply glows. (I started to write shines or sparkles, but that’s the wrong word for their quiet and humble story.) Their Christian lives are marked by a gentle faith and simply knowing that God is trustworthy, not because their lives are easy and work out tidily, but just because He is.
As usual, I find myself rambling because I love this book so very much. How about a few quotes?
About Will, an excerpt from Katherine’s journal before they are married:
I have studied night after night, sitting late into the evening, my lessons spread out in front of me and Will patiently tutoring me. The language comes much more easily to him than it does to me but he is also diligent, and I am the beneficiary of his hard work. He has a gentle spirit that I admire, probably all the more so because of my own impetuousness and impatience. At times I see my opposite in him, and being with him is like taking a cool drink of water. He calms me, and when I am with him I feel hopeful and refreshed. (59)
I love this because it reminds me of how I came to love my own dear husband. No, we didn’t learn Mandarin Chinese together, but he just steadily kept on loving me, even when my own timidity and fear would’ve dealt our blossoming relationship a death blow. After almost thirteen years of marriage (not many, I know, but certainly a respectable number, and enough time to begin to know each other) I can see our relationship growing into this, a true thing of beauty:
I want to grow old with my husband, who becomes more precious to me each year. I would have thought younger love was the stronger force, but my feelings for Will have put down roots whose depth I’m only beginning to sense, and while I think of our marriage as still young–nearly twenty-four years does not seem possible–I see it’s not a sapling but a sturdy old oak.
The term “middle age” fits where we are, for I see in him both the young man I fell in love with and the old one he will be. I see my own dear husband and I am struck by how deeply I love him, by how many times I have nearly lost him–and by how lost I would be without him. (225-26)
From Katherine’s journal, during a time she and Will are separated from one another and the outcome is unknown:
I want to help. I want someone to go looking for my husband, I want to send out the cavalry, I want good news, I want him home. But there is nothing: no action to take, no one to send, no news–no Will. All I can do is wait and pray, and hwen I have ranted and raved in my mind and worn myself out, I ask God to receive me again.
My faith feels tattered and threadbare and I am ashamed. What good is it if it does not see me through pain? But a scrap of faith is better than nothing, so I cling to it tightly. With as much trust as I can muster, I ask Him for the thousandth time to keep my dear one safe. Somehow the day passes and I am able to be useful, and at night He lets me sleep. In the morning we begin again. (144)
I love this because it reminds me so much of friends and people within my circle of acquaintance who have been through so much–my pastor who remains faithful and hopeful, even in the face of his wife’s suffering and death; a couple in my area whose young son has a brain tumor; a young woman in her twenties from my church who just finished her last round of chemotherapy for breast cancer–and yet still hold onto faith and trust in Jesus. What are my small troubles in the face of all that? Surely I can trust, too.
I could truly go on and on with quotes I love, and I’ve actually not even touched the part of the story that affected me the most: I was sobbing when I read of their leaving China. Caldwell writes about their life’s work with such love and dignity that I love China, too, after seeing it through Will’s and Katherine’s eyes. Although this book is a love song about Will and Katherine (though it really isn’t a romance at all, but a real-life depiction of a good marriage), it’s equally as much a love song from Will and Katherine to China and the life God ordained them to live there, the pure, unexpected, joyful miracle of it:
As I lay in bed each night thinking of leaving Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, I also found myself remembering our arrival there–the day we came to the city, our small storefront on Hsiao Chieh, our tentative beginnings–and as I did, I was amazed at what God had done, sometimes through me, sometimes with me, frequently in spite of me. I could not exactly reconstruct how it had all come to pass–where we had found the money and the knowledge and the perseverance to do what we’d done. It didn’t add up; it made no more sense than it did to have leftovers after feeding five thousand with a few loves and fishes. But I had stopped trying to explain it. Mysterious abundance was not the exception but the rule. It was who God was, when we gave Him half a chance. (233)
Read those last two sentences again. Beautiful.
I suppose this quote from Katherine’s journal sums up both the theme and the tone of this story the best:
I believe I could write a book about the goodness of God. (265)
That’s what Bo Caldwell has done in City of Tranquil Light.
If I were to choose a soundtrack to accompany this beautiful and powerful novel, I would choose Matt Redman’s “Never Once.” It captures the essence of this novel.
I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction because I find it a bit too saccharine for my taste (or the opposite, gritty for the sake of destroying the stereotype), but this one is a must-read. (Notice, too, that it isn’t published by a Christian publishing company.) I give City of Tranquil Light a Highly, Highly Recommended. (Henry Holt, 2010)
Many thanks to Sherry for placing this book on my radar to begin with and to Alice for writing the review that nudged me to actually buy a copy of the book and read it. Truly, it was one of the best $10 I’ve ever spent. I’m submitting this review (if it can be called that) to this month’s Award Winning Books Challenge database because it won the 2011 INSPY award for general fiction.