When Virginia Pye came to the South End library last month to talk about her second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, she brought along a slide show of compelling photographs of North China she had found in her grandparents' home. They date from the first decades of the 20th century, during the rise of Communism, when the Pyes were Congregational missionaries in Shanxi Province. In one of them, a tall man stands with his wife behind a small child. He happens to be Pye's grandfather, Orson. He was among the first Westerners who returned after the Boxer Rebellion, when the Chinese had tried to rid their country of Western influence. He met his wife there, Gertrude, who had come to China on her own at age 25, from Ohio, where she had studied early childhood education at Oberlin College.
The little boy is the author's father, Lucian Pye, who later became a famous China scholar, and taught at MIT for decades. "When I wrote the novels, I kept those pictures by my side because they inspired the stories I wrote," Pye told the audience. Growing up in Belmont, MA, in the 1960s, Pye disavowed her family's missionary background, repelled by US imperialism, and opposed to the Vietnam War, which her father supported. She wrote other novels, but eventually found herself going through her grandfather's papers and discovered a more complex story than she had initially assumed. This archive became the inspiration for Pye's first novel, the highly praised River of Dust, which was chosen as an Indie Next Pick and was a finalist in the 2014 Virginia Literary Awards.
He was a "beautiful writer," she said, "an erudite man who wove Shakespeare and Dickens into his reports home about his mission, as he envisioned it." Her grandfather raised funds in America to have a road built so the Red Cross could deliver food to a population starving from years of drought, Pye learned. Their young daughter died of dysentary at age six, when her father, the little boy in the picture, was four. Orson Pye himself died of tuberculosis not long after, in 1926. "Through fiction, I dealt with how my grandparents weathered one disaster after another, and had to re-examine their faith," said Pye.
Her second China novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix --named Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Dispatch-- was inspired by a family story: After Japan invaded China, her grandmother had fearlessly chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch in the Chinese mission compound with a broom. Widowed, Gertrude eventually returned to the United States with her teenage son in 1942, after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Unlike her husband, Gertrude did not leave a written record. But Pye was able to imagine details of those days when she came across journals by the pro-Communist US journalist Agnes Smedley, who had followed the Red Army and reported about it for English-language newspapers.
Pye, who returned with her family to the Boston area from Richmond, VA, when her husband was named executive director of the Di Cordova Museum, is currently working on the third and final novel in the China series, a personal odyssey of sorts, called Sleepwalking to China. While River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix played out against events experienced by her grandparents in North China before and after the First World War, respectively, Sleepwalking takes place during the anti-Vietnam era and the fall of Saigon, which she lived through herself. "Then I may be done with my China novels," Pye commented.