City of Tranquil Light is a novel based on the lives of the author’s maternal Aunt and Uncle. The fictional story of Will and Katherine Kiehn is so moving that I devoured the first 111 pages in a single sitting. After that, I continued to read, but many times with the greatest agony.
Not because the writing turned to a lesser quality, but because the characters' little girl died. As the couple work through their grief, there are questions raised with such honest poignancy that I could not read more than one paragraph at a time because I wept so hard. Anyone who has ever grieved deeply will feel the depth of Katherine’s despair in her talk with God:
“We buried our daughter yesterday, and I am brought up short by the harshness of Your ways. I have given my all for You and in return you have taken the gift I love most – my sweet child. But perhaps I loved her too much I am mistaken; perhaps I haven’t given my all, but have held something back. Did I love her more than You? I know you are a jealous God, but are You that jealous, that You would take the other object of my devotion? I feel broken, as though there is a great gash inside of me, and my only prayer is a question: ‘What have You done?’ I ask not from anger, but from confusion, for I truly do not understand.
Perhaps You are a flawed God, imperfect as we are. We are, after all, made in your image. Perhaps it was not Your intention to take Lily, but your inattention. Did You look away for a moment? Was your mind elsewhere? Many times a day I ask myself what else I could have done and search for some mistake I made. But perhaps You are at fault, not I. It seems there is so much You could have done.”
Who among us who has met with loss hasn’t asked these questions? It is the first of many tragedies they live through, but Mrs. Caldwell allows us to see the glory and wonder of how God can work. The man who stole the medicine that might have saved Lily’s life comes to Will Kiehn and demands – at gun point – that Will treat his son.
Will knows what this man’s banditry has cost him and I’m sure many of us might tell this bandit where he and his murderous son could go. Will doesn’t. He heals the son and the bandit’s men and earns their trust and gratitude before he’s allowed to return to his wife. Before he does so, he shares the Lord’s Good News with his captors both through the bible and through his actions, but Will's forgiveness is a long way away.
Time continues and the bandit’s son goes on a murderous rampage, after which he is captured, tortured and executed. The bandit returns to Will and in an amazing scene filled with the bereft father’s sorrow and humiliation, the bandit chief turns himself in as justice for having raised a shameful son. He is beaten and awaiting trial when Will brings him food and medical treatment. Neither man expects the bandit to survive, but God's ways are mysterious and wonderful.
Their lives intertwine throughout the novel, which is a must read for anyone interested in China, missional history or the mission field. If the tremendous losses and beauty in City of Tranquil Light kept me by my tissue box, the heroism, faith and selflessness displayed by Caldwell’s characters kept me reading.