Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Good Book: The Good Earth

I added Pearl S. Buck's award-winning novel, The Good Earth, to my stacks several years ago. It was a complete whim and one of few occasions that I decided to spring for a pristine, brand-new copy of anything. Most of the time I tend to haunt used bookstores or swap sites. Something about the recommendation of a good friend and this stunning, spare yellow cover rendered me unable to resist.

It's been a while since I've read a classic--Emma earlier in the year. I always hope that at their best I'll feel filled up by a classic. That it will impart some universal message and leave me satisfied and yearning for more of the good stuff. I am pleased to say that The Good Earth lived up to all of my hopes.

Wang Lung is a poor Chinese farmer, and his main motivation in life is to acquire more land. He marries a slave girl from the rich and powerful House of Hwang, O-Lan, and they begin to work their land side by side. Over the years they have children, and when drought strikes, they head off to a southern city to beg for money until they can return to their home. A strange twist of fate allows them to return home, and there begins their journey toward wealth and, one would think, happiness.

It's a reconizable story. Poor man achieves great riches and life is not as simple and fulfilling as he hoped it would be. Terrible hurdles pop up in Wang Lung's 70-something years, and it would be impossible for me to touch on even half of them in this review. The power in Buck's writing is really her willingness to write well-rounded, realistic characters. Wang Lung is NOT always a nice guy. I didn't like him for portions of the book. Though, truthfully, he was always a somewhat sympathetic character, even if his goodness was only in his head and not directed toward his fellow characters. The star of the show for me was O-Lan. Buck's own feminist views shine through to some extent as O-Lan is a strong, hardworking woman who puts up with a lot of crap from her husband.

There is also controversy in The Good Earth. A white American woman writing the perspective of a Chinese man is something to be discussed. Truthfully, I had my doubts, and I kept watching for signs of white privilege and whatnot, but overall I felt Buck was writing in a fairly detached, nonjudgemental way about Chinese culture and daily living. The book is stuffed full of the minutiae of everyday life in early 20th-century China, and for all its distasteful facets--for this 21st century white American woman--it was a fair and even-handed read.

I purposely did not read a word about Buck's life until after I finished the book, and I'm glad of that. I wanted to judge the book without knowing exactly how much or how little Buck knew of Chinese culture. As it turns out, and as I would've guessed, she was thoroughly entrenched in China having lived there for the majority of her life and having suffered a great deal at the hands of China's political unrest.

I guess I could've just written, "It's a winner!" and been done with this review, but I hope others will pick up The Good Earth as a result of my long-winded approach. It's a book I would dearly love to discuss with others, so if you've read it, please comment!!!

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