Hersey blocks out Treadup’s life in ten large narrative chunks, each suggestively titled (for example, “The Test”), and then divides and subdivides so that the story is told in a great many, usually brief episodes. He interlards his conventional third-person omniscient exposition with passages from Treadup’s letters and diaries to create an effective historical panorama from the mesh of viewpoints.
The story of the YMCA’s Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions is important in The Call. Hersey notes that the movement, founded in 1888, became “the most influential student movement in the country, analogous, in its feverish growth and widespread appeal, to the student radical and pacifist movements of the 1930’s and to the organizations of the New Left in the 1960’s.” Between 1888 and 1919, more than half of the North American Protestant missionaries were SVM volunteers.
Hersey also tells well the history of Chinese workers assigned to the Allies in Europe during World War I. In February, 1917, about 140,000 Chinese coolies were working in France. Hersey’s summation is blunt: “It is not surprising that the historians of the Allied cause in the First World War have played down, to the point of disappearance, the suggestion that the Allies used slave labor to relieve the manpower shortage which followed the gruesome carnage of young men in the first years of that conflict.”
Hersey repeatedly notes the many times that missionary cultural advances were adapted by the Communists after the revolution. For example, putting great numbers of people to work on public projects was “one of the many innovations of the missionaries which the Communists would later take up and magnify in their transformation of China.”
The most powerful theme of the novel, overshadowing all else, must be the irony to which the title is reduced by Treadup’s loss of faith. Even his postwar years are frustrating, and he leaves China permanently with an admittedly broken heart. Treadup dies an atheist, virtually estranged from two of his three sons by extreme differences in temperament. What comfort that can be found in The Call must come from the trick of history that made the missionaries into groundbreakers and innovators for the Communists.