In the summer of 1937, the Chinese Communists were good guys, at least to the peasants they were attempting to help. They were more aware of the modern world than the hill country warlords were, and they organized to thwart attacks from the invading Japanese. This is the setting of Virginia Pye’s sophomore novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenix, in which her protagonist is a tall, outspoken American woman named Shirley Carson whose minister husband, Caleb, is presumed dead.
“This isn’t a political novel, but in one way or another, everything is,” Pye says. “This is a ground-level view of how it was that the Communists won hearts and minds of peasants and the poor when confronted by the ruthlessness of the Japanese. Then, well, things eventually change.”
Her grandmother, Gertrude Chaney Pye, served as a missionary in China from 1909 to 1941, and while her story is not that of the Red Phoenix’s protagonist, enough string existed to weave a greater story. “My grandmother stayed in China after losing a child,” Pye explains. “Her husband died and she stayed, and when her son, my father, returned to the United States for college, she still stayed. She finally had to leave after Pearl Harbor. I’ve wondered why she remained after so much loss in a rugged place. She found mission and a community.”
Finding a sense of purpose and a way to make a difference in the world was important at a time when women in society were often relegated to support roles. “My grandmother had chutzpah,” Pye says. So does Shirley Carson — and it gets her in trouble.
Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, set in the Chinese high desert and also involving a mission family, took years for her to complete. In contrast, she wrote the first draft of Red Phoenix “fast and furiously,” then spent a year revising it.
“In this story, people are called upon to act in moments of extreme stress,” Pye says. “You see their true character in those moments.”
Author of 'Dreams of the Red Phoenix,' Virginia Pye. (Photo by Terry Brown)
This past summer, she moved from Richmond to Boston with her husband, John Ravenal, who left his position as curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to direct the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. “But I’m keeping an apartment in Richmond,” Pye says. She’ll maintain her involvement with the James River Writers and Art 180. “I’ll be keeping up my literary citizenship.”.
Meet the author: On Oct. 11, from 5 to 7 p.m., through Chop Suey Books, Virginia Pye will be at Dinamo restaurant (821 W. Cary St.), where there’ll be food, wine and fortune cookies; she will also participate in various panels for the James River Writers Conference, Oct. 16 to 18 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center