I first heard about this book on Semicolon’s blog. Her glowing review caught my interest and I put it on my to be read list. I have somewhat of a fascination with books about China. I think this is probably because of marrying into a Chinese-American family. I’ve never thought being in an interracial marriage is particularly a big deal, culturally H. and I had fairly similar childhoods. He was born and raised in the United States and most importantly, we both share the same faith. However, there are lots of small differences in our cultural backgrounds that I find interesting to explore through books. It used to be that I’d be reading a book by someone like Gish Jen or Amy Tan and I’d start to read a passage to H. that I thought was hilarious and insightful in how well it mirrored his family. Once I told him he should read whatever book I was reading and he looked at me and said “I don’t need to read it, I lived it.” So, I stopped reading aloud passages to him. As I’ve been married to him longer, I’ve found it less interesting to read books about the Chinese-American experience. However, I still have a fascination with China, especially turn of the century China, and most especially with missionary work in China. I think in part it’s because I’m ultimately grateful to those missionaries. Grateful to them for bringing the good news of Christ to H.’s grandfather, who passed on the legacy to H.’s mother, who brought H. up as a Christian. In my self-centered little world, I see my three kids as the fruit of the work of those long ago missionaries.
City of Tranquil Light, the story of Will and Katherine, two Mennonite missionaries to China at the beginning of the twentieth century, is based on the lives of the author’s maternal grandparents. The book is the story of their work there and of the immense difficulties they face: famine, war, a devastating personal tragedy, kidnapping, bandits and the day to day struggles of poverty. It is also the story of China itself during a very turbulent time. And it’s the story of their marriage through 27 years in China and 13 years back in the US. It is rare to find a book that tells the story of a good marriage realistically. There are plenty of books that tell about falling in love and plenty that tell of unhappy marriages or crises in marriage but there are very few that have a good marriage as one of the main storylines. This book does that in a way that is believable and poignant. It is just as rare to find a book that realistically talks about the spiritual life of a Christian in a way that doesn’t ignore the struggles but that also details what it is like to have faith despite the struggles. (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home are examples of other books that manage to do this beautifully.) Will and Katherine aren’t perfect , they both go through crises of faith. They both doubt God’s goodness. But in the end they both remain faithful . At the end of the book I came away both inspired by their lives and feeling like they could be friends of mine. That’s no small achievement.
I don’t read a lot of “Christian” fiction. Partially, this is because I tend to think of it as being badly written and usually falling into either the romance or paranormal category. I’ve also found that much of what passes as Christian fiction is theologically questionable (in my opinion). I think of books that elaborate on the “just pray about it and it will all be ok” theme or where a spiritual conversion is equal to a happy ending. Also, I don’t really like the idea of books being Christian by genre as much as I like books that explore topics of faith or religion. I’m not sure how City of Tranquil Light would be categorized or how it was marketed. I do know it won the 2011 INSPY award for fiction (an award given by bloggers for the best “faith driven literature”). But what makes it a great book in my opinion is that it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone, regardless of their faith. Yes, the religious life of the characters is important but I think that someone who doesn’t share that faith would still find a lot to enjoy in this rich book.