Book Review – A Foot Wide on the Edge of Nowhere

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Title: A Foot Wide on the Edge of Nowhere: Olive and Theo Simpkin—Sharing Good New in China

Author: Helen Joynt

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Blurb (from Goodreads):

Theo Simpkin is a young science student at the University of Melbourne when he senses God’s call to share the good news with the people of China. Meanwhile Olive Kettle, an Australian country girl is working as a stenographer and bookkeeper in a Melbourne CBD accountant’s office while helping to support her widowed mother. Theo departs, traveling more than 8000 kilometres to commence his ministry in China, yet the divine matchmaker was at work in both their lives. Discover how Theo and Olive struggle to find God’s will for their futures, despite the distance and the difficulties they face.

Both were descended from pioneers, and Theo and Olive need every bit as much courage, perseverance and faith as they travel on foot, or by pony or mule, through the precipitous Yunnan mountains. During their decades of service, they encountered a unit of the Red Army on the famed Long March, were impacted by the Japanese invasion and lived through the Communist revolution.

Featuring frequent quotes from letters written by Theo and Olive, this book provides an intimate glimpse into what life was like in the rugged mountains of China. This biography follows Theo and Olive wherever God led them–in Australia, China and India–showing his care and provision as two ordinary Australians travel along the path A Foot Wide on the Edge of Nowhere. In spite of persecution and hardship–as witnessed by a brief update from Christians now living in Yunnan–God’s Word continues to bear fruit with joy.

Book Review: Editing this book was an amazing opportunity, one of the times when an author network that spans the globe kicks in and I’m left to marvel at “what God hath wrought.” The story told in the pages was so rich in God’s provision, in Theo and Olive’s devotion and sacrifice, and in showing the culture of the mountainous region of southwestern China that, by the end, I knew I had to have a bunch of copies of my own (hence the picture when my box finally arrived!).

But here’s a closer look, examining the Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, Worldbuilding, and Overall response.

Narration: 4.5 out of 5. The tone of this nonfiction volume is welcoming and immersive, at times reading more like creative nonfiction than an academic volume, yet it’s rich in primary source accounts, from Theo and Olive’s letters back to their relatives and prayer partners, letters to each other, and original photographs taken by Theo during his time in China, Australia, India, and Hong Kong.

And the work is further enriched by the author’s own perspective and experiences when she revisted China in 2012. The book stands at the crossroads between an academic volume and a devotional, clearly indicating what is “strictly factual” and implying what is speculated. As the first time Theo and Olive’s writings have been published, it presents a very approachable rendition of their lives which is both heartfelt and intimate.

Content: 4.5 out of 5. There are times when some might feel the book is “too thorough” in its presentation, as it covers not only Theo and Olive’s lives but also hints at the future work of some of their students and sketches out the lives of Theo and Olive’s ancestors, describing how they first arrived in Australia and retelling how God’s provision and care was evident in those lives as well.

This section, while punctuated with footnotes and just as meticulously retold as the rest, can feel a little bit more like “family history,” yet it fits well in what is both an inspirational story and a biography of two “ordinary” people who lived a remarkable life.

Characters: 4.5 out of 5. In a nonfiction work, the “characters” are, of course, the people who come into the story. Thanks to the letters and other original material included from Theo and Olive’s lives, readers can get to know both of them very well, though Theo seems to have written more and perhaps explored his challenges more than his wife (but then, she seems to have been the kind of person to “do something about a problem” rather than write about it).

One area where readers might have enjoyed another perspective is from the author’s siblings, whose perspectives and thoughts are implied rather than directly quoted, or from Theo’s sister and long-time prayer-partner, but with a work of this kind, the author is often limited to what she can get “on-hand”—so much seems to have been lost when Olive and Theo had to repeatedly leave their home in China, and many letters that would’ve enriched an account like this undoubtedly were never kept in the first place.

Artwork: Subjective. I loved the cover design, which shows the rugged beauty of the area where Olive and Theo ministered and hints at the relatively modern times of their lives. Given the book takes us into modern China to see what lasting work remains in that beautiful mountainous region, I thought it very fitting to show hikers trudging up the same kinds of paths, only now in sneakers.

Worldbuilding: 5 out of 5. In a nonfiction book, the worldbuilding is, of course, how clearly the world is presented, and that aspect of the book is glorious. We don’t get to read many firsthand accounts from the tribespeople to whom Theo and Olive ministered, but again, one is limited in this kind of endeavor due to the ravages of time, war, and the fact that communication, if written in the first place, might not have been kept.

But all the same, Theo and Olive’s heart for the people translates to sharing the cultural struggles they faced, the customs they encountered, and the ways the tribespeople responded to their message and themselves, providing a rich exploration of a remote part of China before, during, and after World War II.

Overall Response: 18.5 out of 20, or 4.625 overall. Anyone who is interested in learning more about relatively “modern missionaries” (compared to the forerunners like Amy Carmichael, William Carey, or James Hudson Taylor) will enjoy this book. It’s perspective is forthright and thorough, and thanks to the academic pains taken by the author, the firsthand accounts of her parents’ and herself are beautifully preserved for future generations to enjoy. An inspiration and a delight!

For more book reviews like this, click here.

Copyright 2019 Andrea Lundgren

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