River of Dust
By Virginia Pye
Unbridled Books, 2013
Trade paperback published April 14, 2014
256 pages, $16.00
One of the great joys of the reading life is the ability to travel to other times and places, to experience life among other peoples and cultures. Virginia Pye’s River of Dust, though not a joyful novel, offers those pleasures in abundance. River of Dust is a character study of a man of great faith enduring a spiritual crisis, a close examination of the dynamics in a young marriage, a suspenseful missing persons story, and a jaundiced travelogue.
A few years after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1900, Reverend John Wesley Watson and his young wife, Grace, have been sent by the church to engage in missionary work in the small Chinese city of Fenchow-fu in the drought-stricken country northwest of Beijing. After making a name for himself building schools, roads, and a hospital, the Reverend (as he is called throughout the book) and Grace, along with their three-year-old son Wesley, move out of the missionary compound to a tumbledown house well outside of town. Before they can even move their bags into the house, a pair of Mongol bandits accosts them and kidnaps Wesley. The compelling plot of River of Dust is thus set in motion. Who are these men, why did they steal Wesley, and what do they want with him?
The Reverend becomes justifiably obsessed with hunting down the nomads and reclaiming his son. He sets out with his man, 60-year-old (but very capable) Ahcho, riding across the badlands in search of the bandits and young Wesley. Many Chinese mock the Reverend and his “Lord Jesus.” They call him “Ghost Man,” some with grudging respect, some sarcastically. He is harassed, taunted, ignored. He comes upon an opium den full of prostrate addicts and young prostitutes, negotiates with a toothless but shrewd warlord, and is astounded by the presence of a nomadic circus in the Chinese outback. The Reverend’s education and training did not adequately prepare him to deal with such people and places; despite knowing Mandarin and much of the history and culture of China, he still finds it to be a great mystery.
While the Reverend is on the road, Grace is left behind to cope with a difficult pregnancy, which often has her feverish and bedridden. She is helped by the elderly Mai Lin, who spends her time chewing and spitting out the juice of betel nuts, scowling at and muttering about everyone and everything, and serving as an indispensable maid, nurse, and midwife to Grace.
River of Dust is the story of this young couple’s encounter with a strange nation: its wide range of people, incomprehensible culture, and primitive religious superstitions. Like most imperialists, whether political or religious, the Watsons and their fellow missionaries believe they understand China and its people’s needs and that they can make a difference in their lives. They soon discover that this may not be the case. China is far more complex than they had imagined. As with most “first contact” stories, despite good intentions, both sides have much to learn about each other and gain insight only through painful experiences. Sometimes the target culture proves impervious to outside influence and instead works changes upon the visitor. In the end, both the Reverend and Grace discover that they are different people than they thought they were.
“Fate takes you where it will, and you must let it,” Mai Lin tells Grace late in the novel, after she has suffered several shocks and setbacks. “This is the way of the river, even when it is dry and dusty. We must bend and flow, or we will be swept aside by the dangerous desert winds.”
Pye has done a masterful job blending several elements into a story about sympathetic characters operating under the most challenging of circumstances. There is much here that will fascinate, surprise, and even shock the historically and culturally curious reader.