City of Tranquil Light (Caldwell)

City of Tranquil Light
Bo Caldwell, 2010
Henry Holt : Macmillan
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780805092288

Will Kiehn is seemingly destined for life as a humble farmer in the Midwest when, having felt a call from God, he travels to the vast North China Plain in the early twentieth-century.

There he is surprised by love and weds a strong and determined fellow missionary, Katherine. They soon find themselves witnesses to the crumbling of a more than two-thousand-year-old dynasty that plunges the country into decades of civil war. As the couple works to improve the lives of the people of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng—City of Tranquil Light, a place they come to love—and face incredible hardship, will their faith and relationship be enough to sustain them?

Told through Will and Katherine's alternating viewpoints—and inspired by the lives of the author's maternal grandparents — City of Tranquil Light is a tender and elegiac portrait of a young marriage set against the backdrop of the shifting face of a beautiful but torn nation.

A deeply spiritual book, it shows how those who work to teach others often have the most to learn, and is further evidence that Bo Caldwell writes "vividly and with great historical perspective" (San Jose Mercury News). (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Rasied—suburban Los Angeles, California, USA
Education—Stanford University
Currently—lives in Northern California

Bo Caldwell is the author of the national bestseller The Distant Land of My Father and City of Tranquil Light. Her short fiction has been published in Ploughshares, Story, Epoch, and other literary journals. A former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, she lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
[P]lainspoken and tender...makes for a lovely sustained chant.
San Francisco Chronicle

Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father) draws from the biographies of missionaries in northern China during the turbulent first half of the 20th century in this mixed second novel. It traces the story of two young, hopeful Midwesterners—shy, bright Oklahoma farmer Will Kiehn and brave Cleveland deaconess Katherine Friesen—as they journey to the brink of China's civil war in the isolated town of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng: the "City of Tranquil Light." In the unforgiving "land of naught," they live the joys and perils of missionary life, including famine, spiritual rejection, the dramatic 1926 rise of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, and the forcible, often violent, exile of fellow missionaries. Throughout the unrelenting hardship, the remarkably stable couple remain in China, bound to their newfound roots and to the ideals of their larger mission. At times this novel seems more about rhetoric than relationships—the couple's unwavering dedication to each other and their mission is unbelievable at times—but Katherine's diary entries are emotionally deft, capturing the romance and anxiety of cultural estrangement.
Publishers Weekly

Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father) draws on the lives of her grandparents for source material for her second novel. The story is told in two voices. In 1966, Will, who has been widowed for 20 years, remembers his former life with his wife, Katherine, starting with their meeting as young Mennonite missionaries on a ship headed for China in 1906. Interspersed through his tale are excerpts from the journal Katherine kept during their three decades in China. Katherine had nursing training, but Will had only his love for the Lord and his desire to share it. The two worked side by side, healing bodies and engaging souls through famines, earthquakes, civil war, encounters with bandits, and winters that were "five coats cold." They realize the many ways in which their neighbors enriched their lives as they see them through good times and bad, including the birth and death of their only child. Verdict: This is a sweet tale of an enduring love between this couple, their love of China and its people, and their love for their God. The novel will probably find its strongest readership among devotees of Christian fiction. Recommended for public libraries. —Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll.
Library Journal

Caldwell perceptively explores the deepening faith shared by her grandparents while at the same time painting a vivid portrait of the country they came to love more deeply than their own. —Deborah Donovan

Discussion Questions
1. City of Tranquil Light is framed at both ends by an elderly Will narrating from California. What does this structure lend to the novel? What is the effect of having key information early on about the story to follow—that Katherine predeceases Will, for example, and that they do not live out their lives in China—instead of learning it at the end?

2. Will and Katherine both note that they feel they are returning home, rather than leaving it, when they depart the United States for China for the very first time. What do you think makes them feel this way? Have you ever experienced a similar sensation? In what ways does the novel talk about home?

3. Edward and Will have a close bond; Katherine and Naomi do as well. What makes these connections so strong? Since we don't see the characters together that often, how are these ties shown? How do Edward, Will, Katherine, and Naomi lend support to one another?

4. Consider Chung Hao and Mo Yun, Will's first converts. Will and Katherine intend to help both of them, which they do. But how do Chung Hao and Mo Yun end up helping them? What about the rest of the people of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng? Are Will and Katherine surprised to be the beneficiaries of this assistance? How are the themes of giving and debt dealt with?

5. In what ways are the American missionaries a modernizing force? How do they alter the ways of the people of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng? Is it always for the better?

6. How does Lily's death test Will and Katherine's faith? What enables them to recover? Do you believe that they do fully recover? Do they ever give in to despair entirely?

7. What were your initial impressions of Hsiao Lao? What does his treatment of Will as a prisoner indicate about his character? What do you think of the assistance he gives to Will and Katherine later on? By the end of the novel, in what ways has he changed, and in what ways has he remained the same?

8. How are cultural differences portrayed? Certainly many of the Chinese people Will and Katherine encounter do things that would be considered odd—or outright wrong—in the West. Do you think the novel passes judgment on these differences? Do Will and Katherine? Does the novel help you to understand why things were the way they were in China at this time?

9. What role does fate play? Do Will and Katherine believe that in some sense, their destinies have already been laid out for them? What lends support to that idea?

10. What is it that ultimately pushes Will and Katherine to leave China? They consider it their home—how do they deal with the transition?

11. When Katherine passes away, Will finds himself distraught and asks, "What had been the point of all my years of believing if my trust faltered when I needed it most?" What do you think? Has Will's faith failed him? How is he able to find solace?

12. Upon their final departure for the United States, Will notes, "We had tried to dress up for our journey, but I saw how shabby we looked, how bereft, and what a contrast our appearances were to the rich lives we had led in Kuang P'ing Ch'eng." Would you agree that Will and Katherine led rich lives, despite their poverty? Were their lives ultimately happy ones, in spite of the sadness and many trials they faced?

13. Does Will and Katherine's faith change in the course of the novel? In what ways?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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