A Review of
Persistence of Light: in a Japanese Prison Camp with an Elephant Crossing the Alps, and then in Silicon Valley
Reviewed by Al Brooke
As one door closed, a shaft of light from a crack in another door down the hall shone across my way. Life was all about the angles and colors of light.
Sometimes I read a book which seems perfect for someone I know. I want to pass the book on. On occasion, that person has died, and the gift cannot be made. Once, so far, it has been my father-in-law to whom I wished to give the book. This is that book.
John Hoyte, it seems, has led a remarkable life, and the subtitle does not tell the half of it. Born in China in 1932 to medical missionary parents, he was raised in China with his five siblings. He describes even very early memories with careful precision and insight. At five years old, “in the middle of bustling Shanghai,” he becomes separated from his family, and frightened, is taken to a police station:
Being lost was a completely new experience. During what seemed an eternity of waiting, I wrestled with the idea. It was partly fear but also an adventure into the unknown. . . . [I] began to cry.
Then, wonder of wonders, my mother came advancing toward me from across the room. When I saw her face, I realized I was found. . . . It was better to have been lost and then found than not to have been lost at all. (10-11)
Here, as in other memories, he finds apt illustrations of spiritual truths.
During the Japanese occupation of Northern China, as a boy of nine years old, Hoyte was interned in the Weihsien Internment Camp (described in Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound), with such notables as Eric Liddell (the Scottish runner from Chariots of Fire). He recounts stories about Liddell (“as close to being a saint as one can imagine,” 33) and life in the camp. When the camp was liberated by American forces in August 1945, his family left China for England.
Later at Cambridge University, he and some friends became interested in Hannibal’s route across the Alps. They hiked the most likely routes and in 1959, Hoyte led the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition, which sought to recreate (with one elephant) the Carthaginian’s daring mission.
In the early 1960s he moved to the United States and worked in Silicon Valley, first with Hewlett Packard and later with his own startup. In addition to Eric Liddell, Bill Hewlett, and David Packard, Hoyte recounts experiences with Bob Noyce (inventor of the monolithic integrated circuit), Eldridge Cleaver, and Francis Schaeffer, among others.
The book itself is remarkable for three things, Hoyte’s careful memories, his delightful (sometimes whimsical) sketches and maps, and his thematic use of light in structuring his memories.
I wish I could give it to my father-in-law.
Al Brooke is a criminal defense attorney cross-trained in theology, literature and physics. He thinks graphically, reads voraciously and writes occasional book reviews for The NACDL Champion and for The Englewood Review of Books. His personal online presence is at commonplaces ( AlBrooke.com ).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com