by Erleen J. Christensen
The title, In War and Famine, sounds like part of a wedding vow, to be followed by “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, ‘til death do us part.” Perhaps the author intended as much.
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 3430 McTavish Street, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1X9, 2005, 304 pages, $44.95.
—Reviewed by Mari Carlson, graduate, Master of Pastoral Studies, St. Paul Seminary/School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.
The title, In War and Famine, sounds like part of a wedding vow, to be followed by “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, ‘til death do us part.” Perhaps the author intended as much. The story is of missionaries “married” to China—in flooding (1939) and drought; during the Japanese invasion of China (1944) and ensuing famine; through expulsion by communists (1948) and nationalism; with funding and without, and in church work and secular work. Christensen is now retired as professor of English from Kansas University. As a missionary kid in Honan, China, she experienced the chaos of World War II and the civil war to follow.
While the book is chronological, following events leading up to and during the war in China and the rise of communism, it also focuses on the development of relationships. After the missionaries’ initial “euphoria about China,” in many cases their attraction grew into a strong sense of belonging and a love for the people. The book tells of one long-term missionary who had responded to the famine by “pleading… [for] her people… fellow Baptists” (115).
The stories compiled in Christensen’s history are personal, often from private collections of letters or diaries. The characters bring us into their daily lives amidst a world in chaos. By hearing about events such as Pearl Harbor from a personal letter from a missionary to family in the US, the reader feels like an insider.
Although many details are monotonous, Christensen’s book is not without intrigue. She uncovers one bishop’s scandalous use of famine monies to build a lavish summer cottage. She addresses the disparity between the missionary and the Chinese standard of living, particularly during famine years. Another unique contribution she makes is the acknowledgement of “the glass ceiling plac[ing] missionaries at the top” of the Christian hierarch (29).
The heroes of In War and Famine are single women missionaries of whom Emery Carlson writes, “I have always felt that the single women did the major work in China” (86). Despite in-house and societal struggles, these women solidified the “marriage” between the missionaries and the Chinese.
However, Christensen’s last sentence leaves readers with an ambiguous conclusion as to the missionaries’ role in China. Throughout the book she lauds their efforts on behalf of the Chinese, but she gives the Communists the last word. We are left wondering if China would have been better off left alone.
Christensen writes, “One must look soberly at what the Communists were trying to do, what they did do, and see now a province that has achieved a measure of peace and tranquility, a place where even the poorest have quilts and coats against the cold and seldom go hungry. ”
Whether or not one agrees with Christensen’s assessment, one must admit her commitment to historical research and depth of characters.
Check out these titles:
Bailey, Paul. 2001. China in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wampler, Ernest. 1945. China Suffers. Elgin, Ill: Brethren Publishing.
White, Theodore. “The Desperate Urgency of Flight.” Time, 26 October 1942, 36.
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