"My father had told me when I was young that courage was not strength in the absence of fear but strength in the presence of fear, and I asked God for the courage to withstand whatever lay ahead." -- Pg. 122 of City of Tranquil Light.
I don't always begin with a quote, but that was one of the most powerful points in City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. Whatever your beliefs are, that quote can apply to so many aspects in life. City of Tranquil Light is the story of a young couple, Will and Katherine Kiehn, whose marriage and faith are pushed to the limits while serving as Mennonite missionaries in China during the early 1900s.
When the book opens, Will is reflecting on his life in Kuang P'ing Ch'eng (a.ka. City of Tranquil Light) now that Katherine is deceased. Knowing that a major character is already dead led me to believe that there is no happy ending. But the journey Will and Katherine take, while filled with strife and heartache, is both happy and fulfilling.
"But despite my ordinariness and the smallness of my talents, I have led an extraordinary life."
While living on a farm in Oklahoma, Will felt a call to serve God at the tender age of 16, years later he would fulfill that call. Although he didn't want to leave his family, Will knew there was a greater purpose for him. That purpose comes in the form of a family friend, a missionary named Edward. Tales of dire straits in parts of China -- both physical and spiritual -- inspire Will. This is what he is supposed to do -- be of service to others. It turns out to be the best decision of his life, on this journey Will meets his future wife Katherine. He sees a beautiful nurse, who has stolen his heart. Katherine sees an immature boy.
Soon all that goes away, they learn to see the good qualities in each other. She has the power to ease someones sickness, and he has the power to teach. While they can see the best in each other, Will and Katherine see totally different things when they venture to Kuang P'ing Ch'eng. A year after their marriage, Will and Katherine are sent to the City of Tranquil Light to set up a missionary post. Will sees the numerous businesses -- Lantern Alley and Chopstick Lane -- in full swing, while Katherine takes note of the foul smell, and lack of electricity and plumbing. To me that seems very in tune with reality. Men and women by their very nature see things differently.
In time Kuang P'ing Ch'eng becomes more of a home to them than America.
"My home is here. And if my belly were full but my heart empty, what would I gain?"
They work together to dispel the myth that all foreigners -- especially Americans -- are evil. Katherine opens a clinic, treating patients out in the open so everyone can see her in action. Will opens their home to those in need. His acts of kindness are rewarded. One moment he is preaching to just a few people and then many.
Their life in China is fraught with extreme highs with the birth of their daughter Lily, and extreme lows. They have to earn the protection of the local bandit, and in doing so get caught in the midst of a local war. A tragic loss tests their faith. Why has God put them through this? What did they do to deserve this? If you're wondering what "this" is, I'm not telling. You will just have to read the book. They have every reason to leave, but can't bring themselves to abandon a town that has become their home. Even staring down the barrel of a gun isn't enough to sway them.
For me the book started out a little slow, but before I knew it Bo Caldwell took me on an emotional roller coaster. Caldwell used her maternal grandparents as the inspiration for this book. What's fact and what's fiction I don't know, but Caldwell did them proud. You aren't hit over the head with a Christian agenda. To me Will and Katherine's relationship are what drive the book, their faith is more of a backdrop. The book is told from both perspectives. It's clear how much they love each other. Both are willing to give up their lives in China for the other. While sad at times, you will be smiling by the end.
Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Classic or YA: Can You Tell the Difference?
5 hours ago