River of Dust begins in rural China in 1910, as an American missionary couple watches in horror as their child is taken from their doorstep by a group of Mongol bandits. Though the Reverend and his family are among the first Christians to return to China following the Boxer Rebellion, he is determined to find his son and sets off into the dangerous plains, leaving his pregnant wife, Grace, behind. As the Reverend loses himself in his new nomadic life, strangely connected to the people he encounters, Grace must survive with only her faith and the family's Chinese servants to guide her.
Virginia Pye has a stand-out voice for creating fantastic imagery and the plains of China seem to be waiting for her narration. The first few paragraphs of River of Dust, taken from the excerpt on the book's website, will easily transport you.
"The Reverend loomed over the barren plain. He stared at the blank horizon as if in search of something, although to Grace’s eyes, nothing of significance was out there. Sunset burned his silhouette into a vast and gaudy sky. Standing tall in his long coat on the porch above his wife and son, he appeared to be a giant—grand and otherworldly. Perhaps this was how the Chinese saw him, she thought.
Her husband spread his arms toward the blazing clouds and shadowed flatlands as if to say that all this was now in the Lord’s embrace.
The breeze shifted, and billows of smoke circled their way. Grace watched the Reverend’s outline waft and shimmer. She would not have been surprised if his body had gone up in flames right there before her eyes, ignited in a holy conflagration with only a pile of ash left behind to mark his time on this earth. Grace shook the strange notion from her mind, although she wondered how so good a man could appear so sinister in such glorious light."
River of Dust peeks into a corner of the past rarely examined by historical fiction, which is a refreshing change. Even beyond a new setting are the bigger questions raised by the world Pye introduces readers to; imperialism, evangelism and faith swirl around the novel from front to back without leaving the story feeling like it has a religious agenda.
With a step into this history niche, however, I am slightly concerned that some details may be lost on readers unfamiliar with the Boxer Rebellion. While a few mentions of the uprising are woven in quite delicately, it would benefit those with no knowledge of Chinese history to have some background before reading.
Based on the journals penned by her grandfather while serving a similar mission in China, Virginia Pye has written a novel blending a rich, historic setting with an engaging story that explores the limits of faith. Richmond has yet another writer to add to its growing list of accomplished novelists.