Dreams of the Red Phoenix
By Virginia Pye
Unbridled Books, Oct. 2015
$16.00, 270 pages
Virginia Pye’s grandparents and parents gave her a wonderful gift that she perhaps didn’t fully appreciate until the last decade. They served as missionaries in northern China from 1909-1941, when Pearl Harbor forced her grandmother to return to the U.S. (her father had returned for college in 1939). Their experiences, documented in letters and photos and a book by her father on rural Chinese warlords, eventually inspired her first novel, River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2013).
Pye returns to this rich lode of material for Dreams of the Red Phoenix, a compelling study of a newly widowed American, Shirley Carson, and her teenage son, Charles, caught up in the Japanese invasion of northern China in 1937. Shirley’s husband, Reverend Caleb Carson, is believed to have died in a landslide on a horseback ride into the mountains to visit isolated villages. Shirley finds herself forced into a role she does not relish, continuing her husband’s work at the mission enclave. Her task is significantly complicated by the recent Japanese invasion; after taking control of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese steadily made their way west over the next few years, leading to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937.
Shirley has maintained her distance from the Chinese, including the local warlords and, eventually, the Communists of the Red Army. Instead, she has focused on her roles as mother, wife, and mission manager of sorts. But as events in her personal life and China begin to spin out of control, she finds herself transformed, reluctantly at first and then passionately, into the nurse she had trained to be, and as the American contact for the local Red Army leader, Captain Hsu. She is challenged by the need to negotiate complex political and personal relationships with Captain Hsu and Major Hattori, the charming but ruthless Princeton-educated Japanese commander.
In a separate plot, the somewhat sheltered and naive Charles is similarly caught up in military and social machinations he barely comprehends. At first, he is primarily disturbed by the disappearance of his Chinese friend, Han, who may have joined the Red Army regiment hiding in the nearby mountains. Charles cares for Han’s pigeons, attempts to learn his whereabouts, and quickly becomes more independent and self-sufficient as his mother becomes preoccupied, and then obsessed, with caring for wounded civilians, many of whom she knows are army soldiers dressed in civilian clothes so she will agree to treat them in the mission compound.
Shirley and Charles lose their bearings as the war reaches them and it becomes nearly impossible to determine who is friend or foe. Difficulties in language and culture create constant confusion and misunderstandings, and Shirley soon becomes ensnared in the military strategies and gamesmanship of Captain Hsu and Major Hattori.
Pye has woven together an unfamiliar setting, a coming of age story, a moment in history that is unfamiliar to most Americans, and what could be termed a tale of early feminist self-discovery into a multi-faceted novel. It is both a fish-out-of-water cultural exploration and an involving, occasionally thrilling historical novel.
Dreams of the Red Phoenix is one of the few novels I’ve read that could have benefited from being somewhat longer. I found myself wanting to know more about the big picture behind the war as experienced by Shirley and Charles, the non-missionary work of Reverend Carson, and the history of China. Perhaps Pye’s third novel will dig even more deeply into the litte-known history of Americans in China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Undoubtedly there are many more stories of this intriguing time and place waiting to be told.