Wednesday, August 7, 2013
The Good Earth
by Pa Rock
Several weeks ago I heard a story on National Public Radio (NPR) that told of a recently discovered novel of famed author Pearl S. Buck. Ms. Buck, the daughter of missionaries to China, was a prolific writer of over a hundred books (44 of which were novels) and thousands of personal letters. She died forty years ago (1973) at her home in Vermont. Unknown to anyone at the time, a completed manuscript was spirited out of her house just after her death. Two copies of the work, The Eternal Wonder, (one handwritten by the author and the other typed) were found last year in a storage unit in Texas. The person who found the copies of the lost novel contacted Ms. Buck’s son who runs a family business related to his mother’s work. The finder offered the novel to the son for a price, but his lawyer responded with a more modest finder’s fee and ordered that the novel be returned to Ms. Buck’s rightful heirs posthaste. It was.
The Eternal Wonder will be published this October.
The most famous novel of Pearl S. Buck was, of course, The Good Earth, which was published in1931 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932. The novel even went on to become a selection of Oprah’s book club several decades after its original publication.
I thought that I had read The Good Earth during my teen years and recently resolved to read it again. I wasn’t many pages into the effort when I realized that the material was new to me. It was, nevertheless, a very good reading experience and time well spent.
The Good Earth tells the story of Wang Lung, a peasant farmer, and his slow and steady rise to wealth and prestige. All of his fortune was acquired through his wise stewardship of the land – the good earth. The tale begins on Wang’s wedding day when he walks to town with a few pieces of silver that he has saved in order to buy a female slave from a wealthy family. The slave is to be his bride, and he pays the price before ever setting eyes on his purchase, the plain and solidly built O-Lan. Together through hard work and a bit of luck, Wang and O-Lan manage to make the farm profitable and are able to buy more and more land from the wealthy family. As Wang Lung’s fortunes rise, those of the wealthy family decline, primarily due to opium use and gambling.
Together Wang Lung and O-Lan have six children. One girl becomes seriously mentally handicapped due to malnutrition during a famine when she was a baby. She becomes close to her father over the years, and he always refers to her as his “poor fool.” O-Lan kills the second daughter immediately after she is born so that she won’t live a life of drudgery and be an economic drag on the family. The remaining four children, three boys and a girl grow up under better circumstances. The boys are all educated and two go to work for the family farm and related business, and the third leaves home to join the military and fight in the revolution. The remaining daughter is betrothed to a boy in a wealthy family and goes to live with them when she is eleven.
Other characters of note include Wang Lung’s father who sits in the sun and enjoys his grandchildren, and a villainous uncle and his lazy wife who are both banes to Wang Lung and his family - and eventually are neutralized by opium addiction. The uncle and aunt have a son, also a sinister character, who becomes a soldier and, as he is fighting and fornicating his way through life, remarks (after getting one of Wang Lung’s servants pregnant) that he goes through life scattering seeds and others follow along to take care of his crops.
Once Wang Lung begins to accumulate some wealth, he purchases a pretty concubine, Lotus, from a local tea house and brings her and her servant, Cuckoo, home to live. O-Lan is disappointed at that turn of events because she had performed the most important duty of a wife by giving Wang Lung sons. Toward the end of his life, when he is a widower, Wang Lung invites a servant of Lotus, Pear Blossom, to his bed where she serves as his new concubine.
The Good Earth is the story of land and working the land – and the effect that this relationship with the land has on one very ambitious peasant. It is a paean to thrift, hard work, and living simply. Wang Lung’s life begins to get complicated when he starts to drift away from those basic values.
Pearl S. Buck was an amazingly good writer. She aged her central character, Wang Lung, through his adult years in a seamless and very natural manner, leaving readers to feel that they walked through his life with him. Her classic novel is also a very good period piece that shows life in pre-revolutionary rural China with exceptional clarity.
I look forward to reading The Eternal Wonder when it is released this fall.