The Call is the story of David Treadup, a rural New York boy, who, after a period of aimless drifting in school, finally heeds the call of missionary service and goes to China to devote a long lifetime to the cause of literacy and Christian service, only to find, at the end of his life, that he no longer believes in the Christian God. The Call is also an impressionistic history of modern China through the Communist Revolution, with its long narrative being divided into ten sections, each focusing on an important phase of Treadup’s life. Sketches of Treadup’s pioneer forebears give the story additional historical sweep, as does the account of the futile efforts of Treadup’s oldest son, Philip, to have his father’s ashes buried in Shanghai in 1981.
The Call is an old-fashioned apprenticeship novel—and more. It is the story of a young man’s confused first attempts to find himself and his discovery of a life’s work as a missionary in China. David Treadup was born in 1878, in the small town of Salt Branch, in the Onandagan region of western New York. His aimless adolescent life was transformed by a severe attack of osteomyelitis, when he was seventeen. His illness constitutes a form of spiritual death and rebirth, as he developed a new insight into the life of the mind while forced into inactivity and left with little to do but read.
David is fortunate in the quality of his tutors. A kind teacher, Maud Chase, guides him in his studies, and when he later attends the Enderby Institute, he is inspired by the exciting classroom genius of Absolom Carter, who becomes the greatest influence on his life. Carter is “an all-around thinker-athlete,” a model of what David knows he wants to become. Carter shapes David’s mind by having him read Benjamin Franklin, Xenophon, Plutarch, and Plato—secular writers who strengthen his thinking powers and foster mental integrity. So “the agnostic Carter’s instinct in giving David this extracurricular course in ethics was to bear fruit: Something skeptical, temporal, and sophisticated would stay with David all of his life—and would give him difficulties as a missionary.”
It is at Syracuse University that David gets the call to Christian service as a missionary. It comes at exactly the right time, for he has had an exhausting struggle against his sense of aimlessness and his insistent carnal desire. All at once, he is a new man: His hypochondria is dispelled by his sense of a religious purpose in life, and he achieves a spiritual confidence that supports him for four decades.
Buoyed by his faith, Treadup gives his life to the service of church work in China. The Syracuse Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) first extends to Treadup the call to a Christian life, and soon after his conversion, Treadup attends a conference featuring the lectures of James B. Todd, charismatic leader of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. (The historical basis for these events is seen in John Hersey’s remark that “As it was to turn out, more than half the missionaries sent overseas into North American Protestant compounds between 1888 and 1919 were SVM volunteers.”)
David Treadup’s new life begins in Tientsin, in northern China, in 1905, where, as a newly married man, he takes up teaching. His pedagogy is simple: Educate the elite and the knowledge will flow downward to the masses, like gravity. His chosen subject is science, his favorite teaching device the gyroscope. Using the astonishing properties of the gyroscope in conjunction with the teaching methods of Absolom Carter, Treadup becomes enormously successful on the lecture circuit. When his old idol, Todd, comes to China, there is a discernible tension between them, Treadup remaining basically more in tune with the sensibilities of Carter than with the mass appeal of Todd. Nevertheless, the two of them embark on a joint tour, with Treadup giving his science lectures while Todd evangelizes. Treadup tries to beat back the pride and satisfaction he feels when he outdraws Todd, but his pleasure shows through.
Treadup’s philosophy of using gravity to spread knowledge is challenged by his experience in France, during World War I, when he goes there in the company of the many Chinese sent as virtual slave laborers for the Allies. The misery of the homesick, illiterate Chinese in France leads to a literacy program that demonstrates to Treadup the need for more such programs in China. Hersey’s sympathetic depiction of the plight of the exiled Chinese is one of the more moving episodes of The Call.
When he returns, rejoining his wife, Emily, and their three sons, Treadup devotes all of...
(The entire section is 1923 words.)