A Foot Wide on the Edge of Nowhere: Olive and Theo Simpkin—Sharing Good News in China
By Majorie Helen Joynt
Wattle Glen, Victoria: Helen Joynt, 2019. ISBN 9780648384908. 400pp.
Reviewed by Claire McConnell
Archivist at OMF International
This is a book I had been anticipating for quite some time. My own personal story with the people on its pages began in 1981 when I was a student in Belfast. The Ireland OMF Secretary at that time was David Strachan, who served with his wife Dorothy. Their exuberance, passion, energy, encouragement, and genuine interest in students left an impact on our lives for mission that has persisted until today. At some point, I had heard that Dorothy’s parents had been CIM missionaries in China and that she had been born there. I had even heard the name “Simpkin”. And I knew that a few years ago Dorothy had gone with her sister to visit the places of her childhood in China, including the areas where her parents had served. But my knowledge was sketchy as I had not taken the time to hear this story in full from my friend.
As archivist at OMF in Singapore, one of my tasks is to file away old papers and photos. One day in February 2018, I was dealing with papers from Saiburi hospital in Thailand when I came across photos taken by my friend David and a Dr. Simpkin. I knew David and Dorothy had both worked there; it was where they met and married. But could this Dr. Simpkin be related? Seeing many other documents signed by Dr. David Simpkin, my curiosity was piqued and I got out the old records of Dorothy’s parents, Theo and Olive Simpkin. I thus learned that they had three children: David Martin, Dorothy Hollis, and Majorie Helen. Further research confirmed that David Simpkin was Dorothy’s brother. Whilst this satisfied my curiosity, I was nonetheless feeling a bit guilty at “wasting” this time for personal interest—I had even roped in my husband, Walter. But God was at work. The next morning when Walter opened his email, there was one, redirected from the Melbourne office, from a Helen Joynt. The email trail revealed that she was the third of the Simpkin children—Marjorie Helen. Helen was in the process of writing a biography of her parents, the final result of which is A Foot Wide on the Edge of Nowhere.
Perhaps it is my personal connection with the book that made it such a delight to read, but I rather think it has more to do with the skill of the writer. Helen has vividly brought to life, not just her parents’ experiences, but also the world in which they lived.
She helpfully begins the story with accounts of the journeys of her ancestors to Australia in the early to mid-1800s. Having carefully researched both sides of the family history of these early immigrants and the times in which they lived, Helen paints a realistic picture of the hardships and joys experienced by pioneers to the new world of Australia. Life was difficult, but the faith of these early settlers was real and strong. I found this backstory to the main missionary story particularly helpful as I had never considered immigration to be part of the context from which missionaries went out in the early days of the modern missionary movement. Placing it in this context helped me to realise that many early missionaries came from the stock of pioneers who had skills and endurance that would be tested to their fullest in the pioneering missionary environment into which many of them went. Long journeys away from family and homeland, with little expectation to return, were not unknown to these families.
As the book develops, we first meet Theo and then Olive. The story of these young people, their journey with God to China, and their journey together is told in a way that reveals their deep faith, dependence, and obedience to the Lord. Personal desires and hopes are set aside as they follow the path before them. After all, it is only in obedience that lasting, true joy can be found. This is a theme developed throughout the book which gives many examples of its truth.
Joynt draws from a rich collection of material as she follows the story of her parents. Both Theo and Olive wrote in-depth letters to family and friends containing vivid accounts of life and the people of Southwest China. The struggles of language learning, travel, provision of daily necessities, and the dangers of brigands and civil war are all brought to life in a captivating manner as Joynt weaves information gathered from many years of letters to produce a coherent and compelling story. If you want to understand what life was really like for pioneer missionaries in early twentieth-century China, this book is a great place to start.
The picture painted is not romanticised; the struggles and disappointments are real. The Simpkins endured long separations from each other and from their children. At times, trust in their loving God was stretched nearly to the breaking point. On multiple occasions they had to flee for their lives, leaving most of their possessions behind. When the final decision for the missionaries to withdraw from China came in 1951, they were some of the last to be able to leave.
China was not the end of their journey with their Lord or the CIM, and Joynt takes us through the readjustment years back in Australia. Their highest desire was to serve the Lord and tell others of him. This passion was passed on to all of their children, a passion I experienced first-hand in Dorothy.
The book is delightfully illustrated with wonderful photos taken by Theo, a keen photographer. I was delighted to see not only a young Dorothy but also more recent photos of her with Helen on the trip back to their childhood home. It was wonderful too to hear stories of the continued witness of the churches of the pioneer work.
That all might be “to the glory of God” is a common desire of past CIM and current OMF missionaries. By telling this story of her parents, Helen has given readers an opportunity to glorify God. So why don’t you read it too and join them?