The Third-Thursday Book Discussion Group’s November selection is Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Good Earth. The 1931 novel is a heartfelt look at the life of Chinese farmer Wang Lung and his family’s struggle to live off the land in early twentieth-century China. The novel outlines not only Lung’s passion for acquiring and working his land amid famine and other hardships, but it gives readers a revealing look at Chinese ideas about family, women, marriage, religion, and class relations.
Insights into Chinese culture and society can also be had by exploring the life of the author. Buck was raised in China by her missionary parents and that gave her great access and insight into the lives of working Chinese families. For Buck, who grew up bilingual, it also presented keen challenges as she tried to fit into two separate worlds – both China and the United States. She emerged as a prolific writer, a passionate advocate for social justice and an American who is credited with changing Western perceptions of China.
Readers will find an insightful and highly readable look at her life in Hilary Spurling’s 2010 biography, Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. Spurling makes clear Buck’s evolution as a woman profoundly influenced by her parents – particularly her Presbyterian father’s single-minded devotion to his missionary work – and the sights she witnessed growing up – particularly the Chinese marginalization of female infants and children. The biography also presents Buck’s development as a novelist, work that was influenced by Chinese storytelling and her ability to observe Chinese society firsthand and then convey people’s inner struggles in emotionally-rich popular fiction.
Spurling is frank about how Buck has been depicted in the past. Even though The Good Earth has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, “Buck is virtually forgotten today,” writes Spurling. “She has no place in feminist mythology, and her novels have been effectively eliminated from the American literary map. In the People’s Republic of China, her fiction remains unique because it accurately depicts the hard lives of an illiterate rural population ignored by the Chinese writers who were Buck’s contemporaries and subsequently obliterated from the record by Community Party doctrine. ‘In China she is admired but not read,’ ran a recent article in the New York Times, ‘and in America she is read but not admired.’ ”
“Both views could do with reappraisal,” Spurling writes.
Spurling praises Peter Conn’s 1996 book Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, an in-depth and fascinating look at her work and life. Conn wound up being spurred to research Buck’s life after his contact with Welcome House when he and his wife were considering adopting an Asian child. Buck, herself an adoptive mother, founded Welcome House in 1949 as an agency to find parents for children of Asian-Caucasian ethnicity born in the United States who were seen to be “unadoptable.” The organization since has gone international. He, too, writes about how little he knew about her work and life at the book’s outset, despite her prolific output as a writer. Ultimately he remedies that with a scholarly, but thoroughly accessible, treatment of her work and life that explains both within the context of Chinese and American history.