Karen Karbo
April 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In his spacious first novel, Dalton tackles the sentimental education of Vincent Saunders, a young Christian missionary who leaves Red Bud, Ill., to teach English and spread the word of God in the exotic, slightly sinister Taiwanese city of Toulio, where he and Alec, a surly stoner, are the only Westerners. The beginning of this old-fashioned story is, like its protagonist, modest and without frills. After eccentric businessman Mr. Gwa offers Vincent $10,000 to travel to a remote Chinese province to collect a young beauty he’s long fancied, the book blossoms into an unexpectedly satisfying saga. Vincent’s trials attest to an enduring truth: No one of any faith can lay claim to genuine spiritual knowledge without journeying both into the heart of his frail human self and out into the damaged world.

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