River of Dust
by Virginia Pye
Unbridled Books, 2013
280 pages (hardcover)
Everyone calls John Wesley Watson “The Reverend,” even his young wife, Grace. Tall and commanding, he’s the leader of a small band of American missionaries in China in 1910. The work is hard — it’s been only a decade since the bloody Boxer Rebellion, and another famine is laying waste to the towns and cities. And Grace is haunted by the babies she lost before their precious Wesley was born. But she’s pregnant again, and the number of native converts is swelling beyond the capacity of their chapel. So they praise God for rewarding their sacrifices.
Which makes it all the more devastating when, on a brief getaway from the missionary compound, a band of nomads appears in a cloud of dust and carries off little Wesley into the desert. (No need for a spoiler alert—this event takes place in the first few pages, and sets an obvious trajectory for the rest of the book.) Grace, already ill and now overcome with grief, takes to her bed, soothed only by her Chinese amah’s sleeping potions, while The Reverend abandons his evangelist duties to scour the windswept desert for their missing child.
If one word could describe Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, it’s “reserved.” Extremely reserved. The narrative voice is as formal as written missionary accounts of the day (and surely owes some of this authenticity to Pye’s missionary grandfather’s journals, on which she loosely based some elements of the story). The dialogue between Grace and her beloved Reverend is painfully distant. Given their difference in age, their status, and their midwestern Christian values at the turn of the last century, this formality is probably an accurate portrayal. But it’s hard to experience the marriage of these two people whose loneliness could have—should have?—driven them together. In the face of such extreme circumstances, I kept expecting their careful control finally to break down and their real emotions break through—but it never happens.
Even the story arc could be called reserved. The plot is a clear path with few surprises and no suspense. A key piece of information revealed late could have been better anticipated throughout to elicit a sense of mystery solved, if only at the bitter end; but by that point the information is irrelevant to their experience. All it does is underscore the couple’s lack of true intimacy and confirm that their suffering was inevitable.
Where Pye excels is in her understanding of the missionary endeavor. She understands what motivated men to apply their personal resources toward schools and hospitals, and women to cut their ties with supportive family back home and bury their children in foreign soil. Grace and her Reverend have different roles, expectations, and trials in this place and time, and Pye depicts well how these differing experiences erode their faith differently and lead to different ends.
And she renders the desolate setting with fine strokes. The pervasive dust, the opium smoke, the lice, the growing collection of talismans around The Reverend’s neck—the reader tangibly smells, sees and feels. The book is textured with historical detail that only enhances, never detracts.
The story might have been more effective in a shorter form, or, alternately, if it been expanded to contrast the Watsons’ points of view with those of the two Chinese servants, Ahcho and Mai Lin. Still, it’s a haunting contribution to the genre of missionary fiction, and a compassionate if stark telling of what was surely a common experience. Readers with interests in early twentieth-century China, Asian folk religions, American foreign missions, or evangelical faith and doubt will gain something of value from River of Dust.