River of Dust
In northwestern China in 1910, the Reverend and his wife, Grace, both missionaries, are en route to a new summer home. History surrounds them, and with his young son, Wesley, perched on his shoulders, the Reverend enthusiastically describes landmarks they will visit: Ming tombs, statues of Buddha, and sections of the Great Wall. The picturesque day turns to unimaginable horror when Wesley is kidnapped by two Mongol bandits.
The startling opening to River of Dust would indicate a continuation of the same. However, as the story unfolds, the Reverend and Grace drift apart, naturally consumed with inconsolable grief. They have two servants who become the pair’s support system. The Reverend takes his servant, Ahcho, on a search to recover Wesley, while Grace and her servant, Mai Lin, remain behind. Grace is not only pregnant but suffers from consumption, but the Reverend is blind to her deteriorating health. While away, he is confronted and shot but miraculously survives his near-fatal injuries. Hence he becomes known as Ghost Man, which earns him respect and reverence.
River of Dust’s sense of bleak despair and overwhelming sadness is difficult to read. This is a somber, reflective story focused on religious dogma, deteriorating relationships, and the hopelessness of losing a child. The author does provide a fascinating look at missionary life in China during the early 20th century, but after reading River of Dust, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to become a missionary.
This historical read is not for everyone. Although the pace picks up toward the end, there is a lengthy middle section in which the characters’ lives become more and more wretched. Those who manage to read to the end will likely have similarly mixed opinions.