Prior to reading and immensely enjoying The Good Earth, I hadn’t heard of Pearl S. Buck or realized the magnitude of her talent and fame. Throughout the 357 pages my brain marinated in Chinese culture and traditions, farming, landowning and family dynamics. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became not only by the story itself but also by the writing style of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author.
The Good Earth is about a peasant farmer named Wang Lung who cherishes the land and works in his fields in Northern China for most of his life. His wife, O-lan is described on the back cover as selfless and that couldn’t be more correct. One of the more startling moments in the story is when O-lan toils beside her husband during the harvest, heavy with her second child. The book describes the birth and illustrates her selflessness in the following sentences:
“…she laid down her hoe one morning and crept into the house…Later, before the sun set she was back beside him, her body flattened, spent, but her face silent and undaunted.”
Buck uses unpretentious language to describe Wang Lung as he changes throughout his life; the reader watches his transformation from humble farmer to a privileged, rich landowner who becomes restless with increasingly expensive taste to match his rising social status. The great thing about his transformation is that the character himself is taken aback by these changes such as when he sits awkwardly his first time in the great tea house looking about with wonder. Or his reaction when he learns that the portraits painted on large scrolls and hung from the walls are in fact of real women who are available at a price and not “dream women” as he’d naively thought. Slowly some of his humility is replaced with entitlement, even more so on the occasions he’s disappointed in his own actions and must compensate for his shame with anger. For me, this put flesh on his bones and made him three dimensional enough to jump off the page and walk into the very room where I sat reading. Characters are all the more real when they do things that the reader doesn’t like.
Famine, lust, war, riches and injustice - this book contains potent ingredients for entertainment while offering a stunning depiction of peasant life in China. Add to this the author's accomplishments and humanitarian work and you can see why I plan to read more of her books as soon as possible. My only disappointment is that it took me this long to find her.