Shirley Carson, an American missionary and the protagonist of “Dreams of the Red Phoenix,” is caught between two lives. The windswept plains of 1937 northern China have been her home for many years, but when her minister husband is killed in a mudslide, she prepares to leave with her teenage son. Their departure is complicated by fighting among Japanese and Nationalist armies and Communist guerrillas. And Shirley finds herself aiding wounded soldiers against the advice of friends -- and against the orders of dangerous men.
Like Shirley, author Virginia Pye is between two different places. After 17 years in Richmond, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband at the beginning of this year. But they maintain an apartment near Carytown, her son still lives in Richmond and her role on the James River Writers board keeps her active in the community.
This month, Pye will be back in Richmond almost every weekend to promote “Dreams of the Red Phoenix” and speak on panels at the James River Writers’ annual conference, an event she oversaw during her three terms as board chairwoman.
But as deep as her roots in Richmond are, her imagination lives in China. Her second novel, “Dreams,” introduces Shirley six weeks into mourning her husband, whom Pye calls the “moral conscience of the story.” Shirley’s grieving is interrupted when the Sino-Japanese War reaches their quiet mission. With casualties and refugees streaming in, Shirley surprises herself with an energy and will that she never knew as a minister’s wife. Friendship with a Red Army commander and revelations about her husband’s activities test her beliefs — and her resolve to leave China.
Like her first novel, “River of Dust,” Pye’s China is inspired by her grandparents’ real work as missionaries in the Shanxi province. Her grandmother lived in China from 1909 to 1941, raising Pye’s father there. Pye’s grandfather died of tuberculosis in 1926 and family lore tells that the widowed matriarch once shooed Japanese soldiers from her porch with a broom.
“I started to think about what that actually meant, the courage or chutzpah that took,” Pye says. Her novels evolved from imagining the woman who chose to stay in China so long after it had claimed her husband and another child.
The broom anecdote made it into “Dreams of the Red Phoenix,” as the beginning of Shirley’s independence. While there’s no evidence that Pye’s grandmother aided Communist forces, Shirley becomes sympathetic to the cause and hostile to Japanese invaders.
“Communists of the early era were the only group thinking about peasants. Americans with high ideals really fell in with them,” Pye says. The writings of Communist-leaning American journalists in China at the time were a model for Shirley.
Pye’s prose is even-tempered and flows easily on the page. There is evocative beauty in her descriptions of the dusty plateau of northern China. And her American characters experience honest doubts that seem real and human in light of their situation. Shirley butts heads both with the edicts of mission leaders and with the Communist commander, while acknowledging her own flaws.
Despite being set in China, this is a book about Americans. Foreign characters are fixtures around which the Carson mother and son change. There’s a stoic servant with secrets, an idealistic Communist leader, an embittered Japanese commander. Like the mission “dotted with fanciful Chinese elements,” non-Americans in “Dreams” are merely decorative.
Pye reports that she recently finished a third book, also set partly in China, but that she’s “done with China after that.” Indeed, her output of award-winning short stories and essays belies a diverse writing repertoire and interest, one that mirrors her legacy in the Richmond literary community.
Gigi Amateau, who serves on the board of James River Writers with Pye, credits her tenure with enhancing the creative identity of Richmond. “[Pye] gets a lot of credit for really energizing the writing community across all genres around the power and craft of storytelling,” Amateau says. “She was unsurpassed in the number of writers she was out there supporting.”
She confirms there is a dedicated fan base for Pye’s books back in Virginia, a community of readers and writers who Pye helped nurture. Despite the move north, Amateau jokes, “she is a Richmond writer and we’ll get to claim her as a Richmond writer forever.” S
“Dreams of the Red Phoenix” comes out Oct. 13. Chop Suey Books is holding an early release event and book signing Sunday, Oct. 11, at Dinamo (821 W. Cary St.) from 5-7 p.m. Free.