Published May 2013 by Unbridled Books
Source: checked out from my local library
Publisher's Summary:On the windswept plains of northwestern China, Mongol bandits swoop down upon an American missionary couple and steal their small child. The Reverend sets out in search of the boy and becomes lost in the rugged, corrupt countryside populated by opium dens, sly nomadic warlords and traveling circuses. This upright Midwestern minister develops a following among the Chinese peasants and is christened Ghost Man for what they perceive are his otherworldly powers. Grace, his young ingénue wife, pregnant with their second child, takes to her sick bed in the mission compound, where visions of her stolen child and lost husband begin to beckon to her from across the plains. The foreign couple’s savvy and dedicated Chinese servants, Ahcho and Mai Lin, accompany and eventually lead them through dangerous territory to find one another again. With their Christian beliefs sorely tested, their concept of fate expanded, and their physical health rapidly deteriorating, the Reverend and Grace may finally discover an understanding between them that is greater than the vast distance they have come.
When I started blogging, Unbridled Books was one of the publishers that came to me time and again offering books for review. It didn't take me long to figure out that anything they offered me was worth the reading. Through Unbridled I discovered Peter Geye, Masha Hamilton, and Emily St. John Mandel. I was thrilled when they picked up local author, Timothy Schaffert's The Coffins of Little Hope. But it's been a long time since I've picked up a book from Unbridled.
Some years back I requested River of Dust on Netgalley and then never got around to reading it, which I regretted. Recently I discovered that it was available at my library; I decided it was time to rectify that oversight. As soon as I started reading, I remembered one of the draws of Unbridled Books - here was a story I have never read before.
The book opens with Grace arriving at a country home Reverend and Ahcho have built for the family to enjoy outside of the small village the mission compound is set in. Life feels marvelous to Grace - she is married to a man she admires so much that she only calls him Reverend, she has a adorable little boy, and she is, blessedly, pregnant again. And then the worst imaginable thing happens; two men ride out of the dust and, for reasons Grace can't begin to imagine, steal their son. Reverend and Ahcho immediately ride off after the bandits and only Mai Lin's skill as a healer save Grace from having a miscarriage.
Things only get worse from there. Both Reverend and Grace begin to mentally fail, a terrible drought brings on famine that not even people with money can survive, Grace contracts "consumption," and Reverend's faith is lost. I suppose the title and the cover of the book should have been my first clues that this was going to be a dark read. It didn't take long to figure out that there would be no happy ending. It's incredibly sad but, I suppose, sadness is likely to follow where arrogance, ignorance, and misguided intentions lead. For me the most compelling part of the book was the exploration of faith.
The book is set just two years after the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising that started in North China because of growing resentment against Christian missionaries and foreign influence. To set out into any new territory to do missionary work was dangerous; to set off into an area that had so recently made it obvious that they didn't want to hear about your faith was, perhaps, the ultimate act of your own faith. Pye's story is drawn from the journals of her own grandfather, which makes the book all the more compelling in retrospect.