A review of City of Tranquil Light

If Barbara Kingsolver's masterpiece The Poisonwood Bible has formed your image of Christian missionaries in the 20th century, you need an equal and opposite set of characters to round out (not replace) your historical, theological and literary imagination. Bo Caldwell's characters Will and Katherine Kiehn are not as dramatic as Kingsolver's Nathan and Orleanna Price, but their quiet faith, love of their adopted country and devotion to each other will stir all but the most callous readers. If you are immune to quietness as a form of passion and simplicity as beauty, beware. Otherwise, you are in for a treat. This is a great book.

The narrator of this tale, Will Kiehn, is an unlikely hero—clumsy, slow, sometimes lazy, by his own confession. A Mennonite farm boy from Oklahoma, he is so humble that he thinks his biggest sin is pride. Having heard a clear call to go to China, he leaves his home and family and joins a company of other missionaries, including Katherine Friesen, the 22-year-old deaconess he will later marry.

The book opens in the 1960s with an elderly Kiehn in a California retirement community, reflecting over his past and remembering a place—Kuang P'ing Ch'eng—City of Tranquil Light. A widower, he cherishes his Chinese Bible, his German Bible (the language of his parents) and his wife's journal chronicling their 27 years as missionaries. An encounter with a Chinese-American Fuller Brush man who recognizes him as "mu shih"—the "shepherd-teacher" who baptized him in China—sets the stage for the opening chapters describing Will's religious heritage and his Mennonite formation on the plains of Oklahoma.