My life partner of 28 years was a “missionary kid;” that is, he was born in China and spent the first 17 years of his life there, the son of extremely devout Protestant missionary parents. He loved them , but something about the whole process struck him as funny from the time he was little . His father, for instance, delivered his first sermon in Chinese on the theme of not hiding one’s light under a bushel, but a trick in the Wu dialect made it sound as if he were endorsing vigorous masturbation. The young Chinese male s idolized him from then on, and the whole episode turned into a family story, but not among the Caucasian members of the mission. They never mentioned it , but their Chinese servants, loyal and caring and very faintly scornful of their charges, laughed among themselves and, of course, clued in the boy who hung out with them in the kitchen. That young man grew up to write books about his experiences, and later would marvel at the temerity of generations of spottily educated Americans who set out to “teach” those who lived in a far more ancient, sophisticated civilization.
Debut novelist Virginia Pye, whose grandfather was Christian missionary and father a distinguished sinologist, creates here a typical American missionary couple. Straight off Midwestern farms, they are catapulted about as far away from their homes as it is possible to be — out into China’s far west, up on the plains that presage the Gobi Desert. The husband is so holy and held in such high esteem by his colleagues that even his wife, Grace, calls him “Reverend,” and he goes along with it, treating her with perfect rectitude and the sweetest of manners. Grace, whose main contribution to the mission seems to be lining up Chinese children and scrubbing them down with lye soap, is not one of those who flourish in China. She nurses a suspicious cough, has already suffered two miscarriages, and dotes without measure on their little boy, Wesley, who’s 3 years old and a handful.
What’s a nice girl like Grace doing in the year 1910 up near the Mongolian border? She reminds herself that “as a girl of twenty, she could instead have become a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse on the Mid-western plains, a librarian in the college town, or most certainly a secretary to one of her father’s fellow academics on campus. Instead . . . she had followed a man in whom she sensed greatness into the desert halfway around the world.” She’s pregnant again and apprehensive about it.
Missionary parents used to threaten their sassy little kids with kidnapping by bandits, and in some cases it was not an empty threat. As early as page 16 in this narrative, beloved little Wesley is indeed kidnapped, and yet it’s not the random act of barbarism that it appears. The kidnapping is part of a feud in which the Reverend is involved, although his wife remains in the dark about the circumstances. To say anything more would be to give away the plot, which is intricate and fascinating. The best thing to do here is to enjoy the research, the meticulous account of how the mission works and the repartee among the Reverend’s servants. They look after their Christian charges like patient, sometimes exasperated parents, trying to keep Grace and the Reverend from making more than their usual share of blunders.
The Reverend begins to change, imperceptibly at first, accepting talismans and amulets, supposedly to keep him from evil. But one mysterious bundle acts as his conscience. He is not the sinless man he has represented himself to be. The Chinese know this, and when they call him Ghost Man, it’s more than the perfunctory “foreign devil” usually pinned on Caucasians.
“River of Dust” is mysterious, exotic, creepy — everything ignorant foreigners used to believe China to be. A fine journey, well worth the effort.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
By Virginia Pye
280 pp. $26