The river was flowing fast now, no longer with water but with dust. Who were they to try to stop it? – from River of Dust –
Grace and her husband have traveled to China as missionaries in the uneasy years following the Boxer Rebellion. The Reverend is a huge man who seems a giant in both stature and faith. He builds a summer home for Grace and their young son, Wesley, where they can look out over the Gobi Desert and watch the sun set. But when Grace and Wesley arrive for their first visit, they are startled to see two Mongolian bandits on horseback. What happens next seems inexplicable. As Grace runs toward the safety of their home with Wesley clutched in her arms, one of the men swoops past and rips the child from her. The kidnappers gallop away in a cloud of dust, with the Reverend in hot pursuit.
This singular event changes everything for both Grace and the Reverend. They eventually return to the mission grief-stricken. Grace, who is pregnant with another child, collapses in a haze of drug-induced slumber under the care of her maid, Mai Lin. The Reverend is determined to find Wesley, going out into the countryside with his faithful servant, Ahcho, where he begins to collect strange objects given to him by the local people who call him Ghost Man: a camel bell, a tatter of red cloth, and a strange pouch which holds something mysterious and gruesome.
Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, is a novel about grief, retribution, and the question of faith vs. fate. Grace and the Reverend come to China to save the unfaithful, but what they discover is an unforgiving land of dust and famine, and a greater understanding of a culture and people they were once quick to criticize.
So little she and the Reverend had ever understood of what transpired around them in this strange land. How had they ever convinced themselves that they were anything but tourists? They were as ignorant as the most ignorant of coolies who eyed the white visitors with curiosity and fear. – from River of Dust –
When I first began reading this fascinating novel, I found it dark and despairing. But soon I began to see something beneath the narrative – a wry humor, a glimpse into the ridiculous nature of prejudice, and a story which began to feel like satire. As Grace and the Reverend struggle with their loss and with each other, the Chinese characters begin to assert their rightful place within the novel. Mai Lin’s loyalty to Grace includes manipulating her position within the household to remain at Grace’s side and usurping the white medical doctor when Grace gives birth. She spits betel juice across the room, bargains with prostitutes and questionable men to get food, and quickly sizes up every situation she encounters. Her blend of Eastern medicine, sardonic humor, and wisdom born of many years of experience, elevated her to my favorite character in the book.
River of Dust is a wholly original novel with luscious prose and compelling characters. Pye puts a spin on the essence of faith and in the waning pages reveals a dark secret which the Reverend has kept from his wife. The effect is a vividly imagined book that gives readers a glimpse into what life was like for Christian missionaries living in China in the early years of the 20th century. But more importantly, perhaps, it examines the importance of understanding cultures different from our own, and asks the essential question: What are the universal connections we have as humans, regardless of our culture or religion?
FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to Unbridled Books for sending me this book for review.