Virginia PyeDreams of the Red Phoenix

Unbridled Books, 2015

by C. P. Lesley on October 13, 2015

Virginia Pye

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Of the brutal conflicts that characterized the twentieth century, none equaled in scale the catastrophe that struck China when the Japanese occupied the northern part of the country just as the Civil War was picking up steam. According to some estimates, 22.5 million people died in these twin acts of destruction. Dreams of the Red Phoenix (Unbridled Books, 2015)  takes place during a few weeks in the summer of 1937, as seen from the perspective of North American missionaries who only think they understand the local culture and their place in it.

Sheila Carson–mourning the recent death of her husband, the Reverend Caleb–can hardly bring herself to get up in the morning, let alone supervise work around her house or rein in her teenaged son, Charles, who soon causes trouble for himself and his mother by taunting the Japanese soldiers who patrol the area. But when attacks on the civilian population send a stream of wounded and hungry people into the mission looking for aid, Shirley, one of the few trained nurses in the compound, is pulled into service, her house turned into a clinic. The mission's protected status, based on U.S. neutrality in these years before World War II, falls under threat when the Japanese army suspects that the refugees include Nationalist and Communist soldiers, and Shirley must decide whether to leave with her fellow Americans or stay and help the charismatic Communist general whose philosophy appeals to her idealistic nature. Her memories of her husband, her responsibilities as a mother, and her own sense of right and purpose are pushing Shirley in different directions even before outside forces intervene to complicate her path.

As in her earlier novel, River of Dust, Virginia Pye here takes stories of her own ancestors–in this case, her grandmother and family friends–and weaves them into a vivid, evocative tapestry of love and loss, belonging and alienation, deception and truth.

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