Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light is what I think of as a personal epic, a book about human goodness and love, told by a Mennonite couple, Will and Katherine Kiehn, who are missionaries in China during 1906-1933. Katherine provides medical care and Will offers sermons as they build a congregation in Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, which means City of Tranquil Light. Caldwell wrote the novel using material from the lives of her own grandparents.
City of Tranquil Light focuses primarily on describing survival – there are threats from illness, drought, politics, and bandits – and it’s very engaging, thanks to Caldwell’s skill at hearing and conveying Will and Katherine’s voices. Caldwell tells the Kiehns’ stories through two types of first-person narrative: Will is the primary storyteller, and Caldwell works in entries from Katherine’s diary that complement Will’s accounts. Will frames their stories about China by saying that he is, in the present time, living alone in the U.S., after Katherine’s death, in a home for retired missionaries. Caldwell aptly conveys the emotions of expats, including the Kiehns’ difficulties readjusting to the U.S. after many years overseas.
The Kiehns’ voices are gentle, and their religion calms them when they are impatient or angry. The Kiehns are generally so low-key in discussing their beliefs, which are linked to God but expressed more in terms of goodness, forgiveness, and redemption, that even I, a reader without religious ties, usually (with a big exception I’ll mention below) felt able to identify with them.
Though the novel was absorbing, my selfish side sometimes wished the Kiehns had been a little less, well, tranquil. [Mild spoiler alert] I thought the best parts of the book involved the most conflict-ridden episodes for Will: after Will has a very difficult stretch at home, a bandit holds him captive, forcing Will, who is not a doctor, to provide medical treatment to the bandit’s son and “affiliates.” The bandit reappears later in the book, becoming its most interesting character.
I’ve long thought first-person narratives – particularly successful ones, such as this – are both a benefit and a curse. The benefit, of course, is a well-told story where I feel like the narrator is sitting next to me and speaking. But the curse is that a good narrator, a narrator who stays in character, tells only the stories he wants to tell, the way he wants to tell them. Caldwell’s tremendous ability to hear voices means Will speaks only of what would seem natural for a real-life Will Kiehn to speak of. It’s a minor and selfish point, but I sometimes felt a little removed from the Kiehns’ surroundings, wanting to learn more about, say, character traits of Chinese colleagues or even what went into some of their meals.
I had more difficulty relating to Will’s ability to accept God’s will. (Or perhaps God’s Will?) Will’s acceptance is a crucial element of the book’s tranquility and its unrelenting – and, yes, refreshing – focus on goodness and devotion, but it left me feeling a little empty when I closed the book. I feel ungrateful writing that because City of Tranquil Light read smoothly, never lost my attention, and succeeds beautifully on its own terms… but I think I’m more partial to books that involve more intense internal conflict, questioning, and even, yes, rebellion.
Bonus: The mentions of noodles in City of Tranquil Light got me craving ants on a tree, a ground pork and noodle dish that my mother used to cook when I was a kid. Here’s a recipe that’s very similar to hers. I realized too late that my package of noodles was thin brown rice stick noodles instead of cellophane noodles, but it was still good, particularly leftover for lunch the next day.
Up Next: Karen Fossum’s Don’t Look Back.
Thank you very much to Henry Holt and Company for providing me with an advance reader’s copy of City of Tranquil Light.