BOOKMONGER: Letters chronicle half-century of unsettled times

“Letters From the Dragon’s Head”

Ed. Kathy Langhorn and Pat Langhorn

I have a distressingly high number of old e-mails stored in my inbox right now and am sorely overdue in going back and deleting several (thousand) of them. Alas, the task just doesn’t have the charm of revisiting a bundle of old letters in envelopes with postmarks, and stamps that had to be licked and addresses written in a distinctive hand.

I am waxing nostalgic – and procrastinating – because I’ve been immersed this week in a book that features a collection of marvelous letters spanning nearly half a century.

The correspondence was written by Martha Wiley, one of nine children born to Mary Ann and Hugh Wiley, who raised their children outside of Yakima at the end of the 19th century. Martha was a precocious child who at four years old insisted on attending school alongside her older siblings. By the age of 23 she had earned Bachelor’s degrees from both Whitman College and the University of Washington.

A few years later, she accepted a posting to China as a missionary, where she spent most of the next 47 years teaching, championing education and independence for Chinese girls and women, and sponsoring several of her students as they continued their studies in the United States.

Her adventures, tribulations, political observations and deepening cultural understanding are reflected in her letters back home, and these have been collected by Wiley’s grandniece and great-grandniece, Kathy Langhorn and Pat Langhorn, in “Letters From the Dragon’s Head.”

Wiley apparently had intended, in her later years, to write a book about her life in China and had requested that relatives save the letters she sent to them. Although she lived to the age of 95, she never got around to that project. Fortunately, the Langhorns discovered that a cache of hundreds of Wiley’s letters was stored in the archives of the Yakima Valley Museum, and they decided to compile and edit the correspondence and publish the book in her honor. They began this endeavor more than twenty years ago. The book has been published at long last and what a treat it is!

Throughout her decades in China, Wiley was assigned to Foochow College and wrote about her students and fellow expat workers as well as of the typhoons, illnesses, famines, political turmoil and war that swept through the country.

“Think of a country where there are no orphan homes, asylums, poorhouses or charities! And all the helpless without friends have to beg,” she wrote in an early letter back home.

And so she set to work – taking in orphans, setting up schools for women and children, overseeing the unbinding of feet and “the bind[ing] up of broken hearts,” and tirelessly raising funds for her work.

Wiley was both adventurous and pragmatic, and she had a sense of humor. As time went on and she became more deeply immersed in the Chinese cultural flux, her attitudes and her work evolved. These letters give insight into a remarkable life, a tumultuous time, and a fascinating place.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.