City of Tranquil Light Summary

Extended Summary

Bo Caldwell is a former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University. Her first novel, The Distant Land of My Father, was a national bestseller, and she has had short fiction published in numerous literary journals. City of Tranquil Light was published in 2010 and is based on the lives of her maternal grandparents, who worked as Mennonite and Nazarene missionaries to China for more than fifty years.

City of Tranquil Light

An eighty-one-year-old man named Will Kiehn sits in a retirement home for missionaries, recalling excerpts from his wife’s journal and thinking about their service together in a place he still loves: China.

He remembers growing up as a Mennonite farm boy in Oklahoma, loving the land and the life of a farmer. He feels called by God into His service. When Edward, a missionary and family friend from China, speaks at their church and sits at their table, Will knows he is called to go to China.

It is 1906, and Will is twenty-one years old. He is on a boat headed for China, along with Edward and several others (including a young woman named Katherine, who is a deaconess trained in nursing). During the thirty-one miserable days at sea, Katherine is quite sick. She is Edward’s sister-in-law; Edward explains to Will that she has always suffered physical affliction for which doctors have found no cause. She believes, however, that as she serves God, He will give her the strength she needs to accomplish the work. Will spends six hours a day learning to speak and write Mandarin. Once they arrive in China and change into native garb, the small group spends several weeks on a houseboat as they make their way inland via canals and waterways. None of the young boatmen can swim; when one of them falls into the canal, Will saves him. According to Chinese tradition, this means the boatman now belongs to Will. Edward translates Will’s desire to give the young boatman back to his father. Katherine is able to sew a gash on the boy’s ankle; the others are impressed with her handiwork and spend hours each night allowing her to tend to them as well. Although she gets visibly tired, she feels useful and content.

Their journey continues on land. Although the land is flat, the roads are crude and the ride is jarring. Half of the group stays with another Mennonite missionary couple, and Edward, Katherine, and Will continue traveling to Ch’eng An Fu, Edward’s home. The closer they get, the more excited Edward grows. He has been gone nearly a year, and a daughter was born in his absence. The reunion is a joyous one, and both Will and Katherine are happy to be with family, though for Will it is only an “adopted” family.

The climate and geography remind Will of his home in Oklahoma. There are many small villages as well as large cities in the region, and nearly all the cities are surrounded by walls with four large gates. Each day an old scholar comes to Edward’s home and instructs Katherine and Will in the language. Although Will feels he is learning too slowly, he is still far ahead of Katherine in learning the written language. Edward has built her a small clinic in a tiny pantry closet, and she sees many patients each day. Katherine feels inadequate at first, but she soon understands that any medical attention is helpful to these needy people. On a visit through town, Will is caught up in a crowd surging toward one of the city gates. Outside the wall, three men are on the ground begging for mercy as their executioner prepares to do his work. Despite their pleas (and some hefty bribes paid by their families), the man wielding the sword makes three heads roll. Will is the only one in the crowd who is not content with this swift and sure form of judgment. That night he becomes ill with a cough and worse; Will knows that his illness is caused by a longing for home and a more civil way of life. Ten days later, Will is able to return to his room in the orphanage.

Edward announces it is time to build the school he has been planning. Will is confident he can help but has no idea they have to uproot trees and haul them to the site before they can begin building anything. Will is now interested in Katherine and asks for medical attention for his ingrown toenail in exchange for language tutoring sessions. The two work side by side late into the night in comfortable companionship. Katherine, as expected, does not pass the written portion of the test, so they study more diligently.

On the night before Christmas Eve, Will gathers his courage and asks Katherine to marry him. She immediately says yes, and it is decided. The missionary tradition is for single people to spend two years in the field before marrying and never to be alone. It is a quick two years before they are married, with the blessing of both families. Katherine is one year older than Will at twenty-four, and she is content.

After a year of marriage, the young couple has a chance to have a missionary outpost of their own, and they are eager for the opportunity. Several weeks after Edward asks them to go, Will and Katherine are on their way to their new home in the north China plain. In October of 1909, they reach Kuang P’ing Ch’eng, which means “City of Tranquil Light.” They find a storefront property that has both living quarters and a place directly on the street from which they can minister. Will gives his first sermon and his audience is rapt, but at the end all but one man walk away in silence. The remaining man is an imposing presence, and Will is hopeful that he wants to convert. Instead, the man simply asks where he can get buttons like those on Will’s jacket.

That is the beginning of many visits by this man, Chu Chung Hao, and he does become Will’s first convert. For room and board and a modest salary, the Chinaman moves in with the newlyweds to help with tasks for both them and the mission. His wife is a bitter woman after the loss of three babies, and she lives with her husband’s family. One night Chung Hao comes to the couple’s room and tells them his wife has tried to kill herself by ingesting opium. Will and Katherine go to her, and Katherine is able to save her life. Now Chung Hao and his wife both live with the Kiehns. Katherine established a clinic in the courtyard behind the mission. She fears it will not be private enough; however, the reverse is true, for now all can see there is no trickery or evil being done behind closed doors. The numbers grow and Katherine is able to help many each day. While many come to experience Western medicine, others come to examine Katherine’s “gigantic” size-five feet. Their relationships with local people are strong and growing, and Will baptizes his first five converts. Will receives a letter from home that is dated six months earlier. His mother writes that his father died. Although Will is stunned and upset, it is not long before he understands this is actually a moment of freedom for him: he no longer feels like this is just something to do until he returns home. Now he no longer dreams of returning home.

Six years have passed and the mission church has fifty-six members who meet three times a week. With the help of a donation from someone in Kansas who has heard of their work, Will and Katherine are able to purchase a two-story home, something quite rare in China. In addition to living quarters (for both them and Chung Hao and his wife) and a sanctuary, there is room for an indoor clinic. There are disappointments as well as successes, but the couple feels blessed to be doing God’s work in this beautiful country. They dream of an orphanage for girls as well as boys and a more extensive clinic from which Katherine can work; however, Katherine knows their lives are about to change.

Their daughter Lily is born in May of 1916 and is an instant sensation in their community. The people have never seen a white baby, and they continually marvel at her pale skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. They bring gifts as they adore her sweet scent and wonder how she grows so big so quickly. On a trip to visit Edward and Naomi, Will’s family stays at an inn. During the night Will hears a scuffle that escalates into something much worse, but it suddenly dissipates. In the morning, Will is given a strange red calling card from a notorious bandit. Bandits are running rampant in the region, and Will is apprehensive about what this may mean for his family. However, he soon has other things to worry about.

When she is eleven months old, Lily is struck with dysentery and dies. There is an outpouring of sympathy from the townspeople, but Katherine becomes a recluse in her grief. Naomi comes for a visit and assuages Katherine’s pain as no other could have. Will travels to avoid his wife’s pain because he cannot help her. He finds himself dirty, tired, hungry, and alone, and all around him are unwelcoming inns and hostile men. Will keeps walking and finds himself next to a drowning pool, a place where people come to drown their unwanted (usually girl) babies. The sight causes Will’s anger at everything—including God—to roil. The next thing he knows, he is waking up in a locked room.

An old man brings him food and then leads him to a compound built into a mountain. In it, Will meets Hsiao Lao (Laughing Tiger), the bandit who protected him and his family at the inn and left his calling card. Now Will is doubly indebted to this criminal for saving his life; the cost is healing the bandit’s son, whose face has been cut from mouth to cheekbone. The bandit shows Will all the medical supplies he has stolen, including many that had been sent from the Mennonite Society and some that could have saved his daughter’s life. Will is angry, but he does what he must. After he bandages the boy’s wound,...

(The entire section is 4012 words.)

Lori Steinbach, Ed. Scott Locklear