To say that I was intrigued when I saw a copy of Two Young Missionaries by Nansi Pugh for sale is to put it mildly. It forms part of the Chatto and Windus career novel series and even for its time (1961) it’s an interesting choice.
I grew up in a Scottish manse. My parents, to put a label on them, were conservative evangelical Christians. I would use that description of myself too – then and now – although I am less conservative or evangelical than they were. I do not say that in a self-congratulatory way. The older I get, the more I appreciate the faith of my parents, expressed, as it was, practically and sacrificially.
Anyway, missionary work, at home and abroad, was important to the family, the congregation and our denomination. The United Free Church of Scotland had been involved in work in Botswana in particular for a long time. So way before Mma Ramotswe appeared on the scene I was well-versed in life in that country. This was the 1970s and 1980s in Moray – in the days before an A9 of even today’s questionable standard. So when speakers came to the town they made the most of their journey and, thus, our house was full of hot and cold running missionaries (to misquote someone or other).
My credentials now established I feel I can turn to the book. The person who sold me it had only a vague recollection of the story but, she told me, it was ‘not evangelical’. Whether she meant this as a warning or a reassurance I am not sure. And she was completely correct. It is not evangelical as the books published by Pickering & Inglis or Victory Press were. It is also not evangelistic, even though it is purportedly a story about two young missionaries.
It’s a strange book in many ways. As with so many career novels of the period, the story is mostly on the surface. But this one doesn’t even give basic details. There’s no account of Church background, no following through a calling to missionary work; we don’t know to which mission society the girls apply and by whom they are accepted, we hear few substantial details of their training. And we don’t even know which country they end up in (although I think it might be Uganda).
Margaret and Celia know each other from school where they formed part of a trio of friends. Janet, the third member, makes an appearance at the beginning of the book and then vanishes without trace. Margaret is a nurse and Celia a teacher. Celia’s Great Aunt Caroline is the only family member we meet and no background is sketched in. And, most unusually for a career novel, there is no future, romantic or otherwise, hinted at. And that is about as much as we know.
I know nothing about Nansi Pugh, the author, either. From her name I’m guessing that she was of Welsh descent and it is possible that she was also the author of a book about the Liverpool Welsh Choral Union. But whether she was a Christian, a Church goer, a professional writer or some or all of the above I do not know. As I said earlier, I’ve met a lot of missionaries, some of whom would have been serving in the 1960s, and I don’t feel that the characters in this book capture the essence of what it means to take the good news to the ends of the earth. That leads me to wonder if Nansi had ever spent time with a missionary. However, this is not the output of a Christian publishing house but of a general mainstream one, and it seems to me that that might be what makes this such a perplexing read.
I’m glad to have added it to my collection, however, and I enjoyed reading it. I just wish I could have spoken to someone involved in its creation to understand the motivation behind its publication.