As a bibliophile, English teacher and proud West Virginian, I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I had never read anything by Pearl Buck before. I’d been to the house where she was born in Hillsboro, but I hadn’t read any of her books, the best known, by far, being The Good Earth. Well, I can finally say that’s not true anymore.
By way of a bit of background, Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, W.Va. But being born here is about her only connection with my fair state. Her parents were missionaries who spent most of her developing years in China. She went to college in the States but moved back immediately after graduation. Shortly after she met her eventual first husband, agricultural economist John Lossing Buck. It was during this time that Buck began writing stories and articles, as well as gather ideas and material that would eventually lead to the writing of the Good Earth trilogy, the first book of which is The Good Earth. It was met with critical acclaim and garnered her both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes.
The book, set in pre-Revolution China, is the story of a simple farmer named Wang Lung, a man whose entire life is made up simply trying, almost completely in vain, to find some peace and quiet. It starts on the day he is to marry O-lan, a slave from a nearby wealthy household. It speaks clearly of the culture that, until the day of the wedding, Wang Lung has not only never met his bride-to-be but doesn’t even know her name. He essentially buys her from the rich family. It is a business transaction, plain and simple. He needs a wife to cook and clean and work the land alongside him and bear him male children. And the rich family has a spare slave.
Speaking of which, baby girls are called slaves throughout the book. And women are treated like property. In fact, the idea of treating women with any consideration of their needs is such a foreign concept that late in the story, when Wang Lung stops his children from giving a young servant to their cousin as a sex slave because he feels sorry for her, the family questions whether he is becoming senile. Earlier in the story, Wang Lung buys a second wife. O-lan is clearly not happy, but knows that it is standard operating procedure and she has no grounds to object. Men have needs that one woman, especially a plain slave woman like her, can’t fulfill.
Another issue that is addressed obliquely is the marked gap between the have and the have-nots in pre-revolutionary China. When famine hits Wang Lung’s village, he and O-lan, along with their children, sell the furnishings from their tiny house in order to have enough food to last until they can ride the giant metal dragon (a train) a hundred miles south to a large city where there is food and work, albeit degrading, low-paying work. Between the begging of O-lan and the children and Wang Lung’s back-breaking work as a rickshaw driver, they manage to stave off starvation, all while nearly freezing to death in a hovel they’ve built outside the wall of a huge estate, where people live a life of leisure and excess. Rumors start swirling that something is coming that will change everything. One night that change comes in the form of an army, which breaks down the walls of the compounds. Thousands of half-starved peasants pour inside, looting everything they can find. Wang Lung, literally dragged along in the middle of the crowd without even knowing what’s going on, finds himself in a room with a cowering member of the elite family who offers him more silver than the poor farmer has ever seen in exchange for his life. When the dust settles, so to speak, there’s more than enough money to get back home to their farm, especially when O-lan reveals she found a bag of nearly priceless gems hidden in a wall of the compound.
The irony of the story is that, as time goes by and Wang Lung becomes more and more prosperous, he becomes one of those elite snobs he had to fight in order to survive earlier in his life. He even moves into the walled palace from which he bought O-lan many years before.
Buck does not comment directly on any of these cultural issues. She simply tells the story in a matter-of-fact style. Some who read it may object to this fact. But I did not, feeling that no commentary was needed. First, she was reflecting the culture within which she grew up. These attitudes were deeply ingrained in Chinese tradition for centuries. But second, and most important, any feeling person who reads this book is alarmed by the marked sexism and elitism of the attitudes and behaviors of the characters. Buck did not need to say it was evil. That is self-evident.
So, was this a fun book to read? Not in the beach-read, the-good-guys-win-in-the-end sense. Much like it often is in real life, this book has an ending that is both somewhat happy and abjectly sad at the same time. So this isn’t escapist reading by any stretch. But the spare beauty of Buck’s prose is sure to draw you in. And more importantly, it is one of those stories, like Les Miserables or The Book Thief, which people simply need to read. It is a cautionary tale that reminds us of just how easy it is to forget to look beyond our own needs and work to see social justice is done.