Faith and works, Anna Rogers

Shrewd Sanctity: The Story of Kathleen Hall, 1896-1970: Missionary Nurse in China
Rae McGregor
Polygraphia, $30.00,
ISBN 1877332321

In an age of “icons” and “celebrities”, true heroes are hard to find. Kathleen Hall, however, was the real deal. This extraordinary New Zealander went to China as a missionary nurse in 1923. After working in Beijing and learning Mandarin, Hall was posted to Mosse Memorial Hospital in the mining town of Datong in northern China. Later she was asked to set up a new hospital at Anguo, south of Beijing, which opened in 1927. Proselytising took second place to hard work as Hall fought to eliminate the dirt and disease she encountered among poverty-stricken Chinese villagers and to win their trust.

Bolstered by a firm, practical and uncompromising faith, she toiled on in a worsening political situation: internal fighting as the power of the Communists increased, and the external threat from Japan which culminated in invasion in 1937. Her path crossed that of the zealous and committed Communist Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who, like Hall, is still revered in China. Desperate for medical supplies at the front, Bethune convinced Hall to smuggle drugs and even equipment such as radios and X-ray machines out of Beijing, using her neutral missionary status as a cover. She continued these extremely dangerous trips – her life was in danger – until the Japanese ordered her out of China in 1939.

Back in Auckland, torn away from the country she loved, Hall was forced into the role of dutiful daughter, caring for her ageing mother. She assuaged her desire for involvement and service by giving talks about China and involving herself with CORSO. After her mother’s death in 1948 she attempted to return to China but, unable to obtain a work permit, instead worked at a Hong Kong leper colony before returning to New Zealand. Here she devoted herself to work with Maori in the Waikato and to the promotion of greater understanding between China and New Zealand.

Rae McGregor must be applauded for her obvious admiration of and dedication to her subject – she travelled to China – and for her attempt to make Kathleen Hall better known, but Shrewd Sanctity disappoints in a number of ways.

The book is beset by many of the problems so often associated with self-publication. It badly needs editing: McGregor is only an adequate writer and required considerable help to avoid frequent clumsiness, words and phrases repeated in consecutive sentences or even within a sentence (“The trip to New Zealand was something of a fishing trip”) and a propensity to include enormously long quoted passages, in one case almost six pages, which could and should have been broken up and absorbed into the narrative. And why did someone not check the spelling of names? Elsie Locke, not Lock; Lili Kraus, not Krause; Sid, not Syd Holland. Illustration sources are not acknowledged. The index is inadequate. There has been only a vestigial attempt at design; the paragraphs are unindented and separated by gaps; the book is an uncomfortable size.

McGregor does not cover the basics well. She often fails to explain who people are, to give their full names or even to make seemingly obvious connections. Phoebe Meikle, for example, appears out of nowhere, and the famous Auckland cinema magnate Michael Moodabe, easily found in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, is referred to only as “Mr”. The headmistress of Hall’s Auckland school was “Mrs” Moore-Jones; the art teacher was Horace Moore-Jones, known for “his evocative WWI painting of the man and his donkey”. Presumably the two Moore-Joneses were related?

The author lacks the skill to make her subject as fascinating on the page as she clearly was in person. McGregor is at her best when describing events such as Hall’s smuggling journeys or her impressive nursing work, but the writing is too often rather naive and chatty, with little analytical depth or sophistication: “The Long March is one of the most documented walks of all time, a miracle almost.”

It is not clear, either, why this book needed to be written. Although McGregor’s bibliography includes Tom Newnham’s 1992 biography, He Ming Qing: The Life of Kathleen Hall, which was published in Beijing, nowhere does she list the updated 2002 edition of this work, Dr Bethune’s Angel: The Life of Kathleen Hall. She acknowledges no debt to Newnham, whose books are better written and contain many more photographs, and does not explain why another biography is necessary or whether new information about Hall has come to light since 2002. Shrewd Sanctity is a sincere but inadequate tribute to a courageous and remarkable woman.


Anna Rogers is a Christchurch editor and reviewer, and the author of While You’re Away: New Zealand Nurses at War 1899–1948 (2003).


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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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