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Book facts
River of Dust
by Virginia Pye
280 pages, $26

New novel turns view of China on its head

My life partner of 28 years was a “missionary kid.” He was born in China and spent his first 17 years 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. That young man grew up to write books about his experiences, and later would marvel at the temerity of a generation 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 a Christian missionary and father a distinguished sinologist, creates here a typical American missionary couple. They are catapulted about as far away from home as it is possible to be – out into China’s far west.

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. Grace, whose main contribution seems to be lining up Chinese children and scrubbing them down with lye soap, is not one of those who flourish in China. She 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. 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.

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.

Carolyn See wrote this review for Washington Post Book World.