Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Adventure classics -- For love of the land

The Good Earth

by Pearl S. Buck


She had lived most of her life in China since infancy. Chinese was her first language, her best friends were Chinese -- from elegant Confucian scholars to escaped slave girls. Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker thought she knew China as well as any Chinese. Then she married young agricultural missionary John Lossing Buck.

“I have no interest now in the personal aspects of that marriage,” the woman known to the world as Pearl S. Buck wrote in her memoir, My Several Worlds. “But I do remember as freshly as though it were yesterday the world into which it transported me, a world as distant from the one I was living in as though it had been centuries ago. It was the world of the Chinese peasant.”

It was also the world that would become The Good Earth, the 1931 novel which was the basis for Buck’s Nobel Prize. Although the Nobel is awarded for a body of work, and Buck’s also cited the biographies of her missionary parents, does anyone doubt it was The Good Earth that really took the prize?

In case you missed the hoopla of having a Depression-era novel picked for Oprah Winfrey’s influential book club, here’s a brief synopsis. The story opens on the marriage day of young Northern Chinese farmer Wang Lung to O-lan, a slave girl owned by the wealthy House of Hwang.  It is a marriage arranged by the Hwangs and Wang Lung’s aging father. “Not a slave too young, and above all, not a pretty one,” the father had said, because the wife’s duty is not to be loved and desired by her husband, but to work and bear children.

At first, the family prospers. But famine comes, and they must leave the land to seek work and food. When mobs loot a rich house, Wang Lung and O-lan steal the money and jewels that enable them to return home with supplies and seeds for their good earth. Temporarily seduced from his land, Wang Lung falls in love with the prostitute Lotus, estranging himself from his children and even the faithful O-lan. The book ends with Wang Lung’s sons waiting for his death in order to sell the land that has been the basis of their fortune.

These peasant Chinese “were the most real, the closest to the earth, to birth and death, to laughter and to weeping. . . (but) the very reality of their lives made them sometimes cruel,” Buck wrote in her memoir. As her heroine O-lan had done, “a farm woman could strangle her own newborn girl baby if she were desperate enough at the thought of another mouth added to the family, but she wept while she did it.”

The cause of these unwanted children, especially disabled children, was especially dear to Buck’s heart after the birth of her daughter Carol, who suffered developmental problems due to undiagnosed phenylketonuria. The Good Earth, in fact, was written partly to raise money for treatment of her daughter, whose portrait she penned in that of Wang Lung’s disabled daughter.

“In a straightforward but highly detailed manner, Buck has composed a classic account of rural Chinese life,” Asia Society columnist Maura Cunningham writes in a review of the book. “That The Good Earth lacks clear temporal landmarks -- which critics argue perpetuates the myth of China as eternal and timeless -- in fact serves to emphasize the continuities between Wang Lung’s era and our own.”

For Cunningham’s full review, see

For more about Buck’s life and writing, I like Hilary Spurling’s biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. And recently, The New York Times and NPR reported on the posthumous discovery of her last novel, The Eternal Wonder, dealing with eerie timeliness with Korea’s demilitarized zone. The book is scheduled to be released this October on Amazon. For more, see

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics begins a month of books about Texas and the Southwest with Edna Ferber’s Giant.)

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