Will is a small farmer in the Midwest when he meets Edward Geisler, a missionary in China with the China Mennonite Missionary Society. Ordinary in every way, Will does not understand why he feels called to go with Edward to China, but he follows God’s leading. Katherine Friesen, Edward’s sister-in-law, is a fellow recruit who travels to China to serve as a nurse. Shy Will falls in love with the strong-minded Katherine, and the two eventually wed. What follows is a love story filled with the trials of their young marriage, as they lived for nearly twenty-five years working among the poor and the scholars in Kuang P’ing Ch’eng – City of Tranquil Light. There, they struggle through drought and famine, threats of violence, and a devastating war. There also, they fall in love with the people, and this is the place they come to call home.
Caldwell writes with a historical perspective, setting the narrative of Will and Katherine within the framework of a changing nation. Throughout the book, she gives accounts of what is going on in China at the time, whether it be the crumbling of the two-thousand-year-old Manchu regime, or the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the corresponding anti-foreign sentiment. It is this anti-foreignism that finally drives Will and Katherine back to the United States, out of concern for the safety of those they love in Kuang P’ing Ch’eng. Will and Katherine also experience the famine of the North China Plain in the early 1920s, and they go through the Civil War between south and north (1925-1928).
Told from the perspectives of both characters, the novel allows us to see how Will and Katherine respond to the events of their life differently. Will narrates most of the book, but we also get to read excerpts from Katherine’s diary. Her introspection brings us valuable insights about their emotional journey. From her, we suffer the loss of their infant daughter, Lily. Her words to God in her journal are raw and unedited: “I am brought up short by the harshness of Your ways. I have given my all for You and in return You have taken the gift I love most… When I have railed against You and worn myself out, I ask You to receive me again, for I have nowhere else to go.” (114) The depths of husband and wife’s sorrow are captured by Katherine, yet they continue to trust, and God gives them the strength to push on, day after day, in spite of such heartbreak.
Katherine and Will’s faithful presence and tender care for others alters the lives of those around them. The most prominent is Hsaio Lao, a bandit chief and one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the area surrounding Kuang P’ing Ch’eng. He holds Will captive for several weeks and forces him to serve as a physician for his son. Will plants seeds of faith in his heart, however, and by the time Will and Katherine leave China, Hsaio Lao has become a changed man, seeking to spread the gospel himself – a potent testimony to the saving nature of God’s grace.
We see Will and Katherine growing in their faith as they realize how little they can do on their own, but how God is faithful to meet their needs. Will is afraid of public speaking, but God gives him the courage to preach in the streets. Katherine is devastated at her infertility resulting from her bout of malaria, but within a year, famine brings hundreds of children to Will and Katherine’s compound, and she is able to write: “I’m no longer childless; I’m childfull, for although I have not one child of my own, I have the unexpected gift of a hundred who are like my own, a fact that fills my cracked heart with purpose.” (164)
The spiritual journey of Will and Katherine is inspiring. Their anxious striving begins to cease as they come to realize that God is using all things in their lives for his plan, even when they cannot see how. As Will writes towards the end of his life of his journey of following God’s leading, “Over time I have come to believe that God’s will is a mystery, fluid and surprising. Following it is like stepping out into something I cannot see… [but] He does not ask me to be perfect, or even good. He simply asks me to be His.” Both Katherine and Will become more peaceful individuals as they learn to trust in God whatever their circumstances.
Like many other missionaries, Will and Katherine come to look upon the United States as the foreign land, and China as their true home. Their assimilation back into America is a difficult one, and not without great heartache at what they left behind. But their tender care for each other is poignant, and only stoic readers will be able to keep a dry eye when reading Will’s account of Katherine’s failing health near the end of the book. The helplessness of his utter despair as he faces losing his wife of 37 years is heart-wrenching. We are reminded of the truth that our plans and God’s plans are not one and the same, as Will’s dreams of growing old with Katherine are left unfulfilled.
Readers of Caldwell’s novel will gain a great appreciation for what it meant to be a missionary in China. They will see not only the countless hardships that face those who leave their native country to take up a new life in a strange land, but also how the hearts of those missionaries are changed. As Will writes: “People often spoke of the sacrifice Katherine and I had made in going to China. This had always sounded odd to me, for I had never thought of it as a sacrifice; I had only been following the desire of my heart… The sacrifice wasn’t in going to China; the sacrifice was in leaving.” (244) He speaks of the honor of being able to serve God as a missionary. We often think missionaries are unfortunate to be faced with such difficult lives in foreign lands, but Will and Katherine remind us that they count it a great blessing to be able to serve the God they love in a land they love among a people they love.
City of Tranquil Light is a stirring novel about love, loss, and faith. It is also a picture of missionary life in China in the early 1900s, and it should be read by all who are interested in China, missions, or Christianity. Anyone who appreciates a beautiful story will find that this book stirs something deep in your soul.