It was last Monday evening at the Harvard Book Store and autumn was fast approaching. Novelist Virginia Pye was dressed in a bright orange scarf, and a crowd of 50-year-olds settled in for story time as the writer told of a foreign place and a distant past. When technology failed the audience watched her slide show from a small 15-inch laptop, enraptured not by the wonders of the modern age, but rather by the magic of the era that her story sought to conjure for them.
Set in China in 1910, Pye’s “River of Dust” describes an unusual adventure inspired by one taken by Pye’s own grandfather. In the novel, a missionary couple goes to China to spread the word of God, but they quickly find themselves in unexpected danger when their son is kidnapped. The father scours the country for his son while his pregnant wife remains at the mission compound. As Pye described it, the novel deals with “American hubris and the dangers of colonialism.”
Pye explained to the audience that, under slightly different circumstances than “River of Dust,” her own grandfather was sent to China to shut down a mission that had been established in a dangerous location. He controversially decided to expand the mission’s presence instead. He then went on to settle down with his wife in China before he died of tuberculosis. The novel’s direct connection to Pye’s life comes, then, from the fact that her father was raised in China and that a feeling of loss permeated his childhood, just as it does for the kidnapped character. The novel is a clear attempt to reconnect with her family’s complicated past.
This guiding theme of family seemed to carry Pye’s voice for 10 minutes as she read of the father’s quest to reclaim his son in a foreign land. Though the China she wrote of is long gone, the struggles of a family to stay together are relevant in any age. It may be Pye’s focus on this theme, indeed, that has finally helped her achieve literary success; she wrote six unpublished novels before “River of Dust.” When asked to comment on this, Pye said with a kindly smile, “I am delighted. I am very, very happy that this is my first book.” Although she does not know how Chinese readers might react to her novel, she is in the process of obtaining the rights to sell her novel there.
Pye further explained how she came to be inspired by her family’s unique adventures. Though she has never actually been to mainland China, her parents immersed her in Chinese culture from a young age. Her father, an avid scholar of China, brought many pieces of Chinese art into their home, as well as frequent Chinese friends and visitors. While recently cleaning out her parent’s house, Pye read her grandfather’s journals from his travels in China, which allowed her “to understand the language of that time.” Though herself an anti-colonial pacifist, with time, Pye said, she came to appreciate these intriguing aspects of her family’s heritage. Her simple curiosity about her grandfather’s journals eventually lead her to use her fiction to find “an interesting way to carry on a family story.” Through her writing, Pye has now transformed what were once her grandfather’s unique tales into her own creative take on a particular piece of Chinese history.