Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book Review: View from the Faraway Pagoda by Robert and Linda Banks

Review by Hazel Barker

Book Description

View from the Faraway Pagoda: A Pioneer Australian Missionary in China from the Boxer Rebellion to the Communist Insurgency by Robert and Linda Banks (published by Acorn Press, 2013) describes the life and service of an inspiring woman, Sophie Newton, the grand-aunt of Robert Banks, whose desire to serve God led her to the forefront of missionary work in south-east China from 1897 to 1931. She lived through the tumultuous events of the Boxer Rebellion and Nationalist Revolution, as well as warlord conflicts and early communist uprisings.

Sophie spent her life empowering women through establishing schools and training Christian workers, as well as opposing the opium trade and challenging the practices of foot binding and infanticide.

Drawing on a wide range of family journals, personal letters, official records and newspaper reports, this story describes how the conviction, sacrifice and compassion of one single-minded woman can make a real and lasting difference to a community.

Robert and Linda Banks have worked in churches, universities and other educational institutions. Robert has taught in history departments and theological colleges and written several award-winning books. Linda has been a teacher, pastor and chaplain. Together they have produced a range of creative Christian resources.

Review by Hazel Barker

The story opens with an excerpt from The Sydney Morning Herald, August 1895. Due to the recently installed cable system, it reaches the ears of Australians, with life-changing consequences for the protagonist, Sophie Sackville Newton. She longs to serve the Master, but her father’s death delays her departure as family responsibilities require her to wait.

Early the following year, the Church Missionary Association accepts her, and, after undergoing six months of training, she joins a little band of missionary sisters and embarks for China.

Besides spreading God’s message to the Chinese, Sophie and her co-workers endeavour to stop such practices as foot-bind, opium addiction and the disposal of unwanted babies. She writes that Chinese fathers squeeze the little ones through openings in miniature round towers specially built for the purpose.
Sophie suffers from migraines despite prayers to remove her affliction. She lives in fear of her life during the Boxer Rebellion, when ruffians attack mission stations. The inmates are hacked to pieces, set alight or skinned alive.

Even during her leave back in Australia, she does not rest, but spends her furlough speaking about China and raising money for the CMA.

Sophie Newton dedicated 34 years to the cause of Christ in China.

The pagoda which inspires the title of the story, no longer exists. Its ruin lies half-way between the village where Sophie first resided and the provincial town that later became her home in China.

Written in an academic style, the book is well-documented and meticulously researched with maps, photos and a bibliography. It makes an excellent record of a missionary’s life. In my opinion, most readers prefer a light refreshing read rather than a narrative style. Written as a creative non-fiction, View from a Faraway Pagoda would appeal to young adults as well, and could be used in schools to set a shining example to the youth of today.

Born in Burma, Hazel migrated to Perth over forty years ago, and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Western Australia. She obtained her Diploma in Education at the University of New England and taught at high schools for several years. Hazel completed her Diploma in Applied Theology in 1992.

Her story Hunger, an excerpt from her memoir See No Evil: story of a war child, was short-listed for the 2013 Redlitzer Writing Competition and published in the 2013 Redlitzer Anthology and two of her short stories, The Seasons of Life and A Year in India, appeared in the Carindale Writers’ Group Seasons’ Anthology, 2013.

Hazel now devotes her time to writing, reading, gardening, bushwalking, and attending classical opera. You can find more about Hazel at her website


  1. Interesting life story! I'm sure I'd enjoy reading this missionary's journey. 19th century heroines always grab me. Thanks for sharing, Hazel. I'd heard of this book before, now I'm keen to read it. :-)

  2. Thank you for your comments Dorothy.

  3. Hi Hazel - lovely review! I've read this book and was fascinated by the fact that, less than a century ago, the return of a missionary from China could make front page news. How times have changed.

    1. Thank you Annie.
      My sentiments exactly, regarding changed times.