What I had not anticipated in re-reading it was my emotional reaction. I sat down this morning to read our first section. Will says, “Although I now reside in southern California and have for many years, that faraway place remains my home.” We also learn that his wife Katherine is dead and we’ll be meeting her though her journals.
By page three I already had to pause and reflect on how the same book can hit you so very differently based on when in life you read it. When I first read this, it was casually put in my hands as a delightful read, I was in China with no inkling I would be in a faraway place, and my father was alive.
Timing people. Timing is everything. I want to get this done before the weekend because this is a big weekend in my family. We bury my dad on Saturday (yes, he died over two years ago and I try to explain to non-American friends what we are doing is not normal for American culture) and we celebrate my mom’s 80th on Sunday. I am in America. My father is dead. My mom is 80. What in the world? So, this novel stirring up when I first read it—how innocent I was and how I could just enjoy it—compared to the twists and turns of life.
I will do my best to separate out what is actually the book from what are my all-over-the-board reactions. But hey, we are emotional beings who read, not robots. With our last three books being new reads for me, the uber-reflective nature of this particular book for me wasn’t on my radar (and when I picked it, I did not know the timing of all of this or my reactions or I might have picked a different book. We shall thank a sovereign God who knew and doesn’t play with us and you’ll forgive my gushing. We’re all in this together :)).
I love Will and Katherine. I love how relatable they are. I love how I can see whispers of my own journey reflected in theirs. I love their BIG dreams and how they were met with hard, ordinary, wonderful life.
You might have read that Bo Caldwell based this book on her maternal grandparents. I found an article where she explains the differences:
“The biggest difference is that unlike my characters, my grandparents had five children. I chose not to deal with fictional children because they would complicate what felt like an already complex story. Also, my grandparents lived in five different cities in China and worked in Taiwan after the Communist takeover of China. I had my characters settle in one place so that I wouldn’t have to keep rebuilding cities, and I chose to have my characters stay in the United States once they returned because I wanted to focus on what leaving China meant for them, on aging and on their marriage. Finally, while my grandparents’ lives were certainly the primary inspiration for the book, I was also inspired by the lives of other [cross-cultural workers], and I incorporated parts of their stories as well as my grandparents’. The line between what really happened to any of these people and what I made up or exaggerated is already blurry and, in my experience, will become more so as time passes.”
I can see why she “streamlined” the story so as not to lose us as her readers. Already her choice of not using pinyin (the romanization of Chinese) is kind of driving me nuts. It takes a bit for my mind to recognize “Tsaichien mei-kuo” and “Zaijian Meiguo.”
I could relate to Katherine when her brother-in-law said, “You’ve only been in China for less than a week and you’re already overhauling the economy and modes of transportation? . . . Katherine, there are practices in this country that you will dislike, I assure you. But some of these we must accept as they are. We are here to offer the people the gift of faith, not remake their way of life, even when the change seems necessary and right.”
Or the homesickness Will experienced after seeing the public execution.
Or when Will shared and said, “The people listened intently, and I thought we might have many potential converts. But when I finished, everyone left without a word or a look back.” Been there, understand that.
I loved when the women came to visit Katherine and she “somehow held my tongue (I am given many opportunities to do so).” I got tears in my eyes later when she thought she had run out of things to show the ladies and they said, “We have not come to see your possessions. We have come to see you.”
As we near the end of today’s section, please feel free to say if you are not enjoying this book. In trying to be objective, I hope you will read it because you’ll see yourself reflected again and again. What stood out to you? Where did you sense yourself saying, “Me too?”
See you in the comments!
- August 9—”Shepard-Teacher” to “Kuang P’ing Ch’eng”
- August 16—”Firstborn” to “Famine”
- August 23—”Civil War” to “Think and Want, Family and Home”