I had already read many of Agnes Sanford’s nonfiction books, and a couple of her fiction titles, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up her novel The Second Mrs. Wu (Lippincott, 1965).
I was wrong.
As much as I have learned from, been challenged by, and even wondered at Sanford’s other books, this one was enthralling to me on a new level. I could hardly put it down.
I think part of the reason I was so captivated was my sense that, although the book was fiction, Sanford was weaving so much of her own actual childhood as the daughter of missionary parents in China into the story. (In fact, in her foreword to a later book, The Rising River (1967), Sanford refers to “the informal autobiography of The Second Mrs. Wu.”) As I read, the truth embedded in this fictional story came alive in a very real way.
Sanford masterfully portrayed the manner in which seeds of faith germinate out of sight until, one day, they burst into view above the ground—in the same way Sanford’s real-life faith did, and as aspects of my own faith have in recent seasons.
The Second Mrs. Wu is a well-crafted story with a number of powerful and important messages.
As the oldest daughter of missionary parents in China in pre-Mao years, young Mary Lee struggled privately to process ideas thrust into her consciousness by the daily events around her—including spiritual warfare, demonization, legalism, healing, miracles, faith, prayer, forgiveness, cessationism (the idea that God has stopped performing miracles, healing, and speaking to his people), and syncretism (the fusing of culture into religion). As her own life served to raise more questions than the missionaries around her were equipped to answer, Mary Lee discovered God and his power and truth directly.
The intersection of cultures with Christianity is a major theme of the book. It is spotlighted in some interesting ways that are not as clearcut as they first seem. The mistaking of nationalism for Christianity (and even the mistaking of culture for Christianity) is explored in the book in a way that can serve as a timely reminder for American Christians today.
In addition, the shining of light on a certain point of religious legalism which grieves the young girl’s heart provides an opening to consider how any legalism is harmful to the fullness of life of the church.
I loved the simple way that prophecy was portrayed in the novel—not in a self-glorifying way, but in a way that illustrates its usefulness for guiding and building up the church (1 Corinthians 14:4). In the book, one of the missionaries continually had the sense that the Chinese church would soon be on its own without foreign missionary involvement, and so he consistently worked in such a way that the Chinese church could be ready for that day. In real life, following the timeframe in which the novel was set, all foreign missionaries were expelled from China, an event which Sanford experienced in her real life.
Although I wish that some character in the book would have brought to bear biblical wisdom from 1 Corinthians 7:17 on a major point of the book, I think the fact that no character of the novel ever did serves to make some of the points of the book just that much more emphatically: That disappointing omission reflects our frequent real-life failures to know and apply Scripture.
One of my favorite aspects of the book was considering how God uses the seeds sown in childhood experiences such as those of the character Mary Lee—and of the real-life Agnes Mary Sanford (1897-1982)—to shape us into the powerful women and men of God that he made us to be.
Sanford’s real life was a testimony that miracles, healing, and many other works and gifts of God continue, despite doctrines that say otherwise. I love that even the spiritual power of a novel—a work of fiction—when filled with so much truth, has the power to continue to expand the kingdom of God even decades after the author’s earthly race is completed.
Reading this book reminded me that I need to finish reading the rest of Sanford’s books; I think she still has much more to teach me.
Note, February 20, 2020: While listening to an audio recording of a talk given by Agnes Sanford, I was delighted to hear her make a statement about just how autobiographical The Second Mrs. Wu was. Sanford was talking about her own experience of receiving healing of wounds from her past, which included “all of the sad memories from childhood.” She said, “If you want to know what they were, you can read my newest book, The Second Mrs. Wu, which is autobiographical. I mean, the little girl was myself and all that happened in it is true, except the one routine about Valerie. All the rest is absolutely, literally, word-for-word, true.” (Source: “Healing of Memories” by Agnes Sanford, audio recording of lecture, in the CFO Classics Library, accessed February 20, 2020, at https://www.cfoclassicslibrary.org/library?search_submit.x=0&search_submit.y=0&usersearch=agnes+sanford” .)