Summary and book reviews of City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

City of Tranquil Light

A Novel

by Bo Caldwell

City of Tranquil Light
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2010, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2011, 304 pages

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Book Summary

Inspired by the lives of the author's maternal grandparents - City of Tranquil Light is a tender and elegiac portrait of a young marriage set against the backdrop of the shifting face of a beautiful but torn nation.

Will Kiehn is seemingly destined for life as a humble farmer in the Midwest when, having felt a call from God, he travels to the vast North China Plain in the early twentieth-century. There he is surprised by love and weds a strong and determined fellow missionary, Katherine. They soon find themselves witnesses to the crumbling of a more than two-thousand-year-old dynasty that plunges the country into decades of civil war. As the couple works to improve the lives of the people of Kuang P'ing Ch'eng - City of Tranquil Light, a place they come to love - and face incredible hardship, will their faith and relationship be enough to sustain them?

Told through Will and Katherine's alternating viewpoints - and inspired by the lives of the author's maternal grandparents - City of Tranquil Light is a tender and elegiac portrait of a young marriage set against the backdrop of the shifting face of a beautiful but torn nation. A deeply spiritual book, it shows how those who work to teach others often have the most to learn, and is further evidence that Bo Caldwell writes "vividly and with great historical perspective" (San Jose Mercury News).

Shepherd-Teacher

Suppose it is an autumn day, fine and clear and cool. Late afternoon, when the sun nears the horizon and turns the sky into a watercolor of pastels. It is beautiful, as though God is showing off. As you approach the city you first see its wall, an immense gray brick structure that is as solid as it is imposing, nearly as wide as it is high, some thirty feet. If you are coming from the east, it will be in sharp silhouette against the lovely changing sky. Near the city the air begins to smell of smoke, but mostly it has the sweet, clean scent of the ripening winter wheat in the surrounding fields.

From a distance the city may not look like much; only that dark wall is visible, and what can that tell you? Some say the cities in the North China Plain are by and large alike, one indistinguishable from another; to them this one might look like any other. But it is not; I can testify to this, for it is the place on this earth that I love the most, the city in which my wife and ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. City of Tranquil Light is framed at both ends by an elderly Will narrating from California. What does this structure lend to the novel? What is the effect of having key information early on about the story to follow - that Katherine predeceases Will, for example, and that they do not live out their lives in China - instead of learning it at the end?

  2. Will and Katherine both note that they feel they are returning home, rather than leaving it, when they depart the United States for China for the very first time. What do you think makes them feel this way? Have you ever experienced a similar sensation? In what ways does the novel talk about home?

  3. Edward and Will have a close bond; Katherine and Naomi do as well. What makes these connections...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Captivating and moving, The City of Tranquil Light transfixed all 14 of our First Impressions reviewers:

I loved this quietly powerful book, even though it was not "compelling" in the typical, cliff-hanging way (Denice B). I had a lot of things to do today, but the book held my attention to such a degree that I got up early and spent most of my day in my reading chair because I couldn't put this book down (Susan S). It's now almost mid-August. Since January 1, I have read 88 books, a list that includes contemporary literary fiction, quality non-fiction, and acknowledged classics. City of Tranquil Light is the best so far, and I look forward eagerly to Ms. Caldwell's next work (Darra W).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

At times this novel seems more about rhetoric than relationships... but Katherine's diary entries are emotionally deft, capturing the romance and anxiety of cultural estrangement.

Library Journal

This is a sweet tale of an enduring love between this couple, their love of China and its people, and their love for their God. The novel will probably find its strongest readership among devotees of Christian fiction.

Author Blurb Andrea Barrett, author of The Air We Breathe
Deceptively quiet, this portrait of a couple in love with each other, their work, and their adopted country explores the deepest questions of faith while richly illuminating a lost time and place.

Author Blurb Jay Parini, author of The Last Station
A handful of books each year convince me of their firm grip on what, for want of a better word, I would call truth. Bo Caldwell has seized on this material, based on the experience of her grandparents, and somehow conjured a miraculous story, one full of passion, historical interest, and spiritual questing. The North China Plain is vividly evoked, and the main characters, Will and Katherine, will not easily be forgotten. City of Tranquil Light is a poem in prose form, and it will lift any reader's spirit as it lifted mine.

Author Blurb Ron Rash, author of Serena
City of Tranquil Light is a remarkable evocation of another time and place as well as a deeply moving love story, but, most of all, Bo Caldwell's book is a profound meditation on the mysteries of belief. This novel is one that will linger in the reader's mind long after the last page is turned.

Author Blurb Gail Godwin, author of Unfinished Desires and Evensong
City of Tranquil Light is just my kind of book. It is full of light, even at its darkest moments. I relished the hours spent with this dedicated and intrepid couple and will not soon forget them. Bo Caldwell has honored her missionary grandparents with her storytelling skills.

Author Blurb Patricia Hampl, author of The Florist's Daughter
What ardent, dazzling souls emerge from these American missionaries in China. Two great lovers hand their story back and forth, the husband writing from widowed old age, the wife speaking from the immediacy of a diary she kept during their decades in pre-Revolutionary China... A beautiful, searing book that leaves an indelible presence in the mind.

Reader Reviews

Loretta F.

A Refreshing Change of Pace
Our book club read this book some time ago, and it was one of the few books that everyone liked. We found the story about a missionary couple very interesting, without being "preachy." We thought the characters were believable, and we ...   Read More

M. L. Stanton

reader opinion of "City of Tranquil Light"
The best book I've read in a very long time and the first ever Bo Caldwell novel for me. I'd never before read anything about missionaries to China, let alone Mennonite missionaries. The saga of hardship and enduring love both Will and Katherine had ...   Read More

C H. (Wauwatosa, WI)

City of Tranquil Light
This is a beautifully written book and one that I found captivating. I was captivated by the love of the missionary couple for each other, by their unrelenting belief and faith in what they were doing, and by their interest and selfless compassion ...   Read More

Debra P. (Belmont, NC)

Awsome Story!
Reads like a travel journal written about an incredible love story containing a powerful message of faith and grace. The author does an incredible job placing one in the story and more than once I had tears of sadness or joy as I read about the ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Religion in China

Religion in China is a hard topic to pin down. The country has been officially atheist since 1949 - a policy that was rigorously enforced through the early years of the People's Republic of China but was relaxed in the 1970s.

Since 1978 the Constitution of the People's Republic of China has guaranteed "freedom of religion" and the Chinese government recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism (or Daoism), Islam, Catholicism and Protestanism. Religions that are accepted by the Chinese are treated with a fair degree of tolerance; however, new religious movements are, on the whole, considered cults and are banned and harshly repressed. This is likely in large part due to the history of religious cults threatening political stability. A ...

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