Son of Shanghai

Book cover
The Distant Land of My Fatherby By Bo CaldwellChronicle Books. 373p $23.95

Sin is the hardest thing in the world to explain but the easiest thing to demonstrate. When we pray, Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, we only rarely sense the mystery within these words, the enormity of the suffering that sin engenders and the possibility of healing that forgiveness entails. This wonderful first novel by the essayist Bo Caldwell explores the causes and consequences of sin and redemption in the lives of three members of an American family living in and between Shanghai and Los Angeles from the late 1930’s through the early 1960’s.

Peace and war, prosperity and ruin, captivity and release, exile, refuge and recovery are the milestones along the journey taken by Joseph and Eve Schoene and their daughter, Anna, who narrates this tale of a child’s love for her parents, at first oblivious to, and then despite, and finally because of their weaknesses. In an antediluvian reverie, before the Second World War, Joseph was a handsome charmer, a millionaire businessman, a polo-playing star. Eve was his beautiful moon, circling and basking in his light, trying to exert some gravitational pull on her anchor. Anna was his beloved protégée, to whom he wished to give this paradise. Their Shanghai was a fantasy world of exotic perfection, into which the snake slithered, bringing betrayal, loss and despair.

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It is a hard thing to understand our own sinswhen and why we reject that which is clearly good. It is far harder to understand the sins of one whom we love, and upon whose love we depend. And it is far harder still, perhaps the hardest of all human endeavors, to allow forgiveness to break through the armor of a once broken heart and to bring about the resurrection of a particular love that we had thought to be irretrievably lost. Caldwell has crafted a sweet and sour, swift and slow, light and dark novel to ask and answer these questions in the context of the sights, sounds and smells of China and California. Beautifully written with counterpoints of action and reflection, the text leads the reader to the most important theological question of all: can love survive, let alone triumph over, sin? This, of course, is the question of the cross.

Joseph loves his wife and daughter, but he loves Shanghai more. Better put, he is intoxicated by the city, both its glamour and its squalor, and especially its vitality. When the Japanese take the city in 1937, he elects to stay even as he sends his family to safety in the United States. He is making too much money to leave, buying and selling commodities. More important, Shanghai allows him the illusion of being master of his destiny, something he senses would be impossible elsewhere, and something he will discover is impossible even here, yet self-delusion leads him repeatedly to underestimate the dangers facing him. A stint as a prisoner of the Japanese only serves to bring to the surface his fundamental choicefor a place, a role, a game and so an implicit choice against wife and child. A prisoner exchange saves him and sends him to them in California, but like an addict deprived, he schemes to return to China. This he does as a liaison between U.S. forces and Chiang’s Nationalist government. The war ended, Joseph plunges headlong back into business, yet he fails to send for his family, choosing other comforts. Throughout, Eve continues to love him, even as she finally abandons hope of his ever really loving her again. The triumph of the Communists puts an end to Joseph’s Shanghai, but for him freedom comes too late.

His daughter, Anna, is 6 when she leaves China. As she grows up, she comes very slowly to understand that her father, whom she loves beyond measure, desires something else more than he loves her and her mother. This is his sin, and sin is the most poisonous of forces. Sin destroys the bonds between people, and this hurts the heart, deeply, for sin is a violation of the rules of love, a rejection of God. Sin leaves in its wake, beyond the destruction of homes and lives, a knot of fear, a hardness of heart that time eases but never cures. Anna comes to learn that only a perfect love, a divine love, can untie this knot as she prays for her father, that he be safe, that he be delivered, that he be returned to his family. Unbeknownst to her, Anna is also praying for her own deliverance, for like her mother, she never stops loving her father despite abandonment, dishonesty, false gifts and fainthearted excuses.

In the end, it is God alone who can free the one who is bound by sin. The grace demanded is granted, yet this does not undo the pastdivine rescue and restoration only allow us to forgive, and to be forgiven, and so to find ourselves scarred yet whole, changed yet saved, for just as the Risen One bears forever the marks of the nails in his flesh, so also it is for those who would follow him through the passion to Easter.

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