A Zealot and a Poet


A Mule, a Map, a Man and a Miracle: such is the quaint, alliterative and suspect title of an article written about my grandfather, a Congregational missionary in the nineteen teens in northwestern China. I have no quibble with the first three M-words: the Reverend Watts O. Pye was among the first white men ever to roam that desolate countryside, and he did it on mule back. He sketched a map of previously uncharted territory on linen fabric and kept a tally of his converts in a tattered leather notebook. These two talisman-like objects sat on my desk and haunted me as I wrote my novel, River of Dust, and tried to make sense of a legacy that prompts both pride and shame. It is the final M-word with which I disagree: what miracle and for whom?

Watts O. stood six foot four, had flaming red hair and wore round gold-rimmed glasses that John Lennon would have liked. He saw himself as a Renaissance man, raised on a farm in Minnesota and then educated at both Carleton and Oberlin Colleges. Later as he rode the rugged plains of China, he read aloud the Romantic poets to his trudging mule, shared the wisdom of Shakespeare with his probably baffled manservant, and waxed poetical about the purple hills in the distance.

By all accounts, he made friends easily with the Chinese and was wildly successful at spreading the Gospel. Under his watch the Congregational mission in Shansi Province grew many times over. He built a hospital, schools for the Chinese children, a library and roads that proved useful for decades. He enlisted Red Cross aid for Shansi and raised needed funds for famine relief from congregations back home. The Reverend Pye’s efforts were tireless, although his journals reveal an exhausted figure. At the age of forty-eight, he was thrown from a mule out on the trail, his chest stomped upon by the animal. Soon TB filled his weakened lungs and he died. He left his wife, Gertrude, and a five-year-old son, Lucian (my father), and a compound of missionaries in search of a leader. Most of all, he left behind those Chinese out on the plains and in the mountain hamlets who would no longer be visited by the surprising white giant of a man.

I like to imagine him out there on his beast of burden, vast grey country on all sides and a book of poetry open in his hand. It is a romantic image and, when I think only of it, I can almost forget why he was there. But then there is the fact of the small leather bound tally book. In cribbed penmanship he catalogued the Chinese names and numbers. On a “good day,” the totals reached the twenties or more; on a “bad day,” a mere one or two. He gave sermons to famine-starved citizens at windswept crossroads. He stayed up late into the night listening to potential congregants weep about their fallow fields. He ate paltry meals at their tables, and in return for his kind and attentive ear, they accepted his offer of salvation.

It was then that the miracle ostensibly occurred. And although he had offered relief to some hearts and minds, the fields remained withered and famine was widespread. The country he left behind in 1925 when he died was rife with turmoil caused by internal battles and external invasion. The presumption that Chinese souls needed saving and that an outsider’s religion could do so was soon held up as yet another example of colonial arrogance. The Communist Revolution began the process of eliminating Christian chapels in cities and distant enclaves as China headed in an altogether different direction.

During my childhood as the war raged in Vietnam and conflict tore apart campuses and cities, I did my best not to think about the missionary side of my family and certainly never boasted of the Reverend Pye’s successes. For me, he was a blatant example of American imperialism. I was ashamed to claim him.

That is, until our parents were moving out of the family home and several generations of possessions had to be dealt with. From a dark corner of the attic, I pulled boxes that held my grandfather’s journals and hunkered down to skim the faded onion skin pages. I unfolded the linen cloth and studied the intricate, carefully drawn map of a rural China from long ago. Out of my grandfather’s traveling Bible fell copious notes for sermons, and when I opened his tally book, the leather made an audible crackle.

And here is what I found that day: a writer. In his journals, the Reverend effectively described camel caravans climbing mountain trails, orchards laden with exotic fruit, foul-smelling village streets and the many voices and attitudes of the Chinese around him, as well as the remarkable beauty of a place unspoiled by industry. He also recorded in more clichéd language his Christian beliefs and assumptions, but it was in his descriptions of every day life that I found him not only genuinely appealing, but also not naïve about the complexities of his position there.

“If the Orient seems strange to us,” he writes, “we should remember that we are seen just as strange to the Orient. The Chinese think us dirty, lazy and superstitious in the west. Dirty, because although we bathe, they detect a very decided odor. Gertrude had a sewing woman last winter who had never been near foreigners before, and after three or four days gave up the job, as badly as she needed the money, and the reason was that she simply could not stand the foreigners’ odors. Mr. and Mrs. Gilles were asked one spring not to walk into a neighbor’s peach orchard where they had been accustomed to walk, for it was thought that the crop failure was due to the odor of their bodies. They think us dirty, too, for the way we use the handkerchief and replace it in our pockets. To a refined Chinese, the sight of a person blowing his nose in the handkerchief and then putting it back in his pocket is actually nauseating. The point in dispute is an excellent example of how the different races may regard the same matter differently and each consider themselves innocent and the other guilty of the same offense. We think the Chinese wanting in cleanliness because, though they do not expectorate into their handkerchief, they will dust their shoes with it and wipe out the tea cup before pouring your tea. Exactly the same distinctions are made to show that we are lazy and superstitious.”

Reverend Pye expresses his intent to be open-minded and unbigoted and seems amused when he senses the Chinese judging him based on his race. One late afternoon, he wrote in his journal as he sat outdoors at a rough-hewn table in a poor village: “A crowd of about thirty watchers is pressed about me as I write, discussing the typewriter, the mysteries of foreign letters, my filled tooth, and what it can ever be that makes me ‘white,’ instead of brown or yellow. They have come to the universal belief that since we drink milk or use it in our food that is the explanation. One man has with great satisfaction just informed the rest that anyone of them could very shortly become just as white as I am, were he to use milk for a few months. They think our color is only artificial. I have heard tell of the story of a Chinese school boy in class when asked the color of the Negro replied, ‘black.’ And the American Indian? Copper color, was the reply. And the Englishman? White was the reply. And what color is the Chinese? Man color, proudly answered the youth. And so it should be.”

In other journal entries, he used the ornate, poetic language of his time to capture the transporting qualities of the countryside: “We lay around, letting the old sound of the mourning doves and the sight of the hills sink in. They sound and look just as they did when we were youngsters back home. Man and his language change while nature and the birds remain. We do miss the dear home faces. But will rest and get new visions for the days to come. There are lots of visions you can’t see, but just feel them, and after all, feeling is perhaps only the soul’s way of seeing. Something that comes to us as light as melody and as color, thrilling us with the sentient harmony that we often hear ripple from the throat of the music-made bird: that same thing that came to us times without number in childhood, and that comes to us now on run-away days like this one, under blue skies and green woods, and despite all that has gone before, and all that may come afterward, and it makes you take off your hat to the joy of living.”

My grandfather’s words revealed him to be a more complicated and nuanced person than the single-minded zealot I had presumed him to be. Before I knew it, he was transposing himself into a fictional character in my mind, because fiction is the best way I know to explore the contradictions inherent in being human. Through odd twists of the imagination, the Reverend Watts O. Pye became The Reverend in River of Dust—a man who is both foolish and wise, witty and overly serious, all seeing and yet blind.

But because The Reverend in my novel is ultimately an invention, I have him experience a crisis of faith that my grandfather never had. The real Reverend Pye died believing in his own convictions. And yet, for me, it is his written words that suggest a more honest and startling miracle—one of a heart and mind revealed across both distance and time. His was never actually a simple story of a man, a mule and a map. And the miracle he promised remains dubious at best. But if one does exist for me, it is buried in the fascination of getting to know an ancestor so long dead and in coming to terms with the moral complexities of his mission.



Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.

Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, is an Indie Next Pick for May, 2013. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, Failbetter, The Baltimore Review and Tampa Review. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and taught writing at New York University, The University of Pennsylvania and helped run a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia for years. For more about her, visit: www.virginiapye.com More from this author →