Isobel Kuhn: On the Roof of the World

Chapter 1
Over the Mountains

When they reached the top of the ridge of mountains, Isobel Kuhn, or Belle, as she preferred to be called, could see for miles. The scene that stretched out before her reminded her of folds of blue and brown velvet pinched together until the folds were parallel to each other. Each pine-covered ridge of mountains rose almost straight up. And in the valleys at the bottom of each fold flowed an icy cold river that ran all the way from the Tibetan highlands. Sometimes it seemed to Belle that she could reach out and almost touch the top of the next ridge of mountains. It also almost looked possible to string a long bridge between the mountaintops, but alas, there was no bridge. The only way to travel was to go straight up one side of a ridge and then down the other side, cross the river in the valley, and go straight up and over the next ridge of mountains. “If only there were a bridge,” Belle sighed as she willed herself to remain balanced on the back of Jasper, her mule.

They had been traveling now for eight days, and for most of that time Belle had been feeling weak and sick with dysentery. But they’d finally reached the Salween River Valley, and their destination, Pine Mountain Village, was only two mountain ridges away. Two more descents into the valleys and two more climbs up the other side. By the look of it to Belle, staring out from her perch across the endless mountains of China’s western Yunnan Province, the trails that led up and down those two mountain ridges were steeper that any they had been on so far.

Sure-footed Jasper negotiated his way down the narrow, steep trail as Belle held tightly to his reins and wrapped her legs around his girth. She tried not to look down; it was better that way. In places, the side of the trail dropped hundreds of feet to the valley below. One wrong step from the mule and they would both be over the edge.

But Jasper knew these trails, and he carried Belle safely to the valley floor, where they crossed the frigid, fast-flowing river. Then it was time to climb up again. But because the trail that led up from the river was too steep for Belle to ride on Jasper, she dismounted the mule and began walking up the trail behind him.

Breathing hard, Belle finally made it to a rocky outcrop about halfway up the mountainside and stopped to rest. Her heart soared as she looked down at the river far below and saw how far she had come. After years of planning and prayer, Belle had nearly reached her first Lisu village.

As she sat and rested, Belle marveled at how events had unfolded in her life. Trekking through the mountains of Yunnan Province as a missionary was a long way from the life of a city girl in British Columbia, Canada, especially considering the fact that the last thing she ever wanted to grow up to be was a missionary. Belle smiled as she thought back to the time in Vancouver when, as a fourteen-year-old, she first realized that missionary life was definitely not for her.

Chapter 2
An Agnostic

It was 1915, and fourteen-year-old Isobel Miller stood on the dock, her long brown hair streaming in the wind. It was a typical summer’s day in Vancouver, British Columbia, and she was glad that she had brought a light jacket. She was at the dock to say farewell to two missionaries, Dr. and Mrs. Isaac Page, who were returning across the vast Pacific Ocean to continue their work in China.

The Pages were by no means the only missionaries that Isobel had waved good-bye to in the three years she had lived on the west coast of Canada. Her father, Samuel Miller, was involved in lay preaching, and her mother, Alice, was the president of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. As a result, missionaries often stayed in the Miller house, either coming from or going to the mission field.

It had once seemed exciting and dramatic to listen to the stories the missionaries told and to touch the woven baskets and headscarves they presented to her mother as thank-you gifts. But now Belle found it all a little tiresome. She wondered what really motivated people to give up their home and so much more and venture across the world to a life of hardship, danger, deprivation, and sometimes even death.

Finally the deep groan of the ship’s horn, the sign for the remaining passengers to get on board for departure, broke into Belle’s thoughts. Then she felt Dr. Page’s hand pat her shoulder. “Isobel,” he said, beaming down at her, “I am going to pray that God will send you to China as a missionary.”

Belle’s heart dropped as she concealed her surprise. You mean thing! I have no intention of going anywhere as a missionary, she wanted to reply, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Belle found it was easier that way. Her whole family was much too religious for her liking. Her grandfather Miller had been a Presbyterian minister and opened a home for seamen’s widows and orphans in England before immigrating with his young family to Eastern Canada. Her parents were always doing something with the Presbyterian Church or some other group of do-gooders. Until recently both Belle and her older brother Murray had to accompany their parents to the rescue mission hall in the slums of Vancouver, where their father would preach to the tenants and their mother would play the piano while Belle and Murray sang gospel songs.

The family outreaches had stopped now that Murray, three years older than Belle, was preparing to ship out with the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight alongside British and French soldiers against the Germans in the Great War in Europe. Alice Miller had now turned her attention to making Belle a “socially fit” young woman. It had surprised Belle when her mother signed her up for speech classes and dancing lessons, but Belle didn’t complain. They were much more fun than singing gospel songs at the rescue mission, and for whatever reason, her mother thought that it was the next step for Belle.

At home, later that night, Belle tried to pray. She had been used to praying most nights before she went to bed, but this night no prayer came to her mind. She thought of Dr. and Mrs. Page on the ship. They were both probably thoroughly seasick by now, and she wondered why they made so much effort to go overseas as missionaries. What difference did it really make whether a bunch of Chinese peasants in some unpronounceable village heard about Jesus? This was a question that Belle did not think about much after that. Life for her was simply too busy with other things. Her brother Murray finally left to fight on the battlefront in France.

Belle could tell that it nearly broke her mother’s heart to say good-bye to Murray. After Murray had left, her father told Belle something she had not known before. Before her parents married, Belle’s mother had been a promising student at the Toronto Conservatory of Music. She was also very sensitive. Within a one-year period her father’s business had collapsed and then her father had died suddenly. Another tragedy hit after that; her brother Fred died of tuberculosis. Combined, the two deaths had caused Belle’s mother to suffer a nervous breakdown, from which she was still recovering when she married Belle’s father.

“We must be careful not to overburden your mother at the moment,” Belle’s father concluded earnestly. “If anything happens to Murray, I don’t know what she’ll do. She’s put every ounce of her efforts into raising you two children.”

Belle smiled weakly. As the only child at home, she had the double burden of trying to be perfect and of distracting her mother from her brother’s absence.

The weeks and months passed, with occasional letters arriving from Murray, who was fighting in France. Each letter talked about the mud the soldiers had to trudge around in, or the shortage of meat or coffee for them to eat and drink. Even though the letters were not cheerful, each one brought relief to the Miller family, as they knew that Murray was still alive.

While her brother was away fighting, Belle threw herself into her schoolwork. She was an exceptionally well-rounded student who excelled in just about everything she did. She played the piano and guitar. She expertly sewed many of her own dresses. She was the best dancer in her dance class, she won the speech prize at school, and then, astonishingly, she won first place for academic achievement in the whole province of British Columbia. For that honor she received a special medal from the governor general of Canada.

Belle could tell that her parents were very proud of her various honors, and her mother began to talk about Belle “marrying well.” Although she went along with such talk, Belle did not let her parents in on her own plans for the future, but she did have set ideas. She planned to attend the University of British Columbia and then go on to become a university professor. There was one subject that she loved more than any other—English—and she knew that she would spend her life happily studying and teaching English literature to students.

Throughout her remaining years of high school, Belle secretly pursued her goal of attending the University of British Columbia. Sure enough, she graduated easily and then prepared for the transition to being a university student.

While putting away her high school memorabilia in preparation for college, Belle came across an autograph book she had forgotten about. She flipped though the pages of the book until she came to her grandmother’s distinctive cursive writing.

A noble life is not a blaze

Of sudden glory won.

But just an adding up of days

In which good work is done.

Belle shrugged her shoulders as she read the words. She still missed her grandmother, who lived back in Toronto where Belle had been born, but she felt that her grandmother was one hundred percent wrong about the quote. She could think of nothing more dull than adding up days of good work. Absolutely not! She was off to university, and she promised herself that she was going to have a blazing amount of fun while she was there.

From the first day she set foot in the institution, seventeen-year-old Belle loved the hustle and bustle of campus life at the University of British Columbia. The university was located within tram distance of the Miller house, and Belle was able to attend while still living at home. On her first day of college, Belle held her head high, determined that she was going to squeeze every ounce of enjoyment out of the four years of study for her degree. It was August 1918. The Great War was winding down, Murray was on his way back home to Canada, and everyone, it seemed, was in a good mood.

During her first week at the University of British Columbia, Belle made a decision that would affect her time at the university. Dr. Sedgewick, head of the English department, was lecturing the roughly one hundred students in his freshman English literature course. In the course of the lecture he offhandedly remarked, “Of course, no one in this enlightened age believes anymore in the myths of Genesis…” Dr. Sedgewick paused for a moment as Belle listened closely. “Maybe I had better test that out before being so dogmatic,” he added. And then he asked matter-of-factly, “Is there anyone here who believes that there is a heaven and a hell? Or who believes that the story of Genesis is true? Please raise your hand.”

Belle immediately raised her hand and looked around to see who else in the class believed as she did. Seeing that only one other person had raised a hand, she was overcome with embarrassment. And more so when Dr. Sedgewick retorted, “Oh, you just believe that because your mama and papa told you so.” With that he proceeded with his lecture.

As Belle walked home that night, she thought about what had transpired in Dr. Sedgewick’s English literature class earlier in the day. Was she wrong and the professor right? Why did she believe the Bible? Why did she believe in heaven and hell? And was the Genesis account of creation really true?

As she pondered these questions, Belle came to the conclusion that maybe Dr. Sedgewick was right. From her earliest memory she had been taught to believe these things by her parents. But was simply believing something because your parents told you so a good enough basis on which to build your life in the modern world? Of course, she had seen many startling answers to prayer in her family. But did such answers really prove that God existed? After all, she had learned in her psychology class that the mind could exert a powerful effect on matter. Was what she thought were the answers to prayers just coincidences? Or maybe those who had prayed had inadvertently answered their own prayers.