Sunday, June 16, 2013

1931-2: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Pearl Buck (1892-1973), while born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, spent most of the first 40 years of her life living in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries.  Affected by the Boxer Uprising and the race issues that were prevalent between Westerners and Chinese, Boxer still remained close to Chinese culture.  As an adult, she briefly returned to the United States and went back to China as a missionary herself and in married fellow missionary John Lossing Buck in 1917, both of whom became professors at Chinese colleges.  They had a daughter in 1920.  The Bucks ended up fleeing China for a year following the Nanking Incident, in which many Westerners were murdered. 

            In 1929, she published here first novel East Wind: West Wind and met editor Richard Walsh.  In 1934, she resigned as a missionary after scandal resulting from a speech she gave arguing against the necessity of an institutional church in China.  She left China in 1934, leaving John Buck behind.  She divorced and married Richard Walsh in 1935.  In 1938 Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the third American (and first American woman) to do so. 

            Buck died of lung cancer in 1973.

So what's this book about?
            The Good Earth follows the life of Wang Lung, a poor farmer in Northern China.  Starting with his wedding day as a young man, the novel spans the rest of his life, painting a portrait of rural Chinese culture at that time.  Wang Lung’s wife, O-lan, was a slave girl from the House of Hwang, one of the ‘great houses.’  Said House is in worsening financial conditions as the story progresses, slowly selling bits of land to Wang Lung. 

            The main story arc is Wang Lung’s rise to wealth and power, and how this affects him, his family, and Lung’s relationship with his family, neighbors, and the Earth.  One thing that comes through very powerfully is the love-hate relationship Wang Lung and the other families have with the Earth.  In a good year, the Earth will provide enough food to eat and sell; in a bad year, there will be famine and desperation. Overall, Lung’s connection with the Earth is, to him, the most important relationship he has. 

            His relationships with his wife and children are, from the perspective of a twenty-first century American, pretty terrible.  While we see that Lung is acting according to custom, and even then is not as bad as others, the culture’s misogyny is pretty unsettling.  Young girls are routinely bought and sold.  In some cases, the words “slave” and “girl” are used interchangeably. 

            The novel doesn’t glorify these cultural norms, nor does it outright attack them.  Rather, it serves more of a documentarian function.  It records both the good and the bad, the honest and corrupt, the noble and ignoble aspects of the culture as they appeared to Buck.  And in that regard, it is a success.  It also succeeds in creating an emotionally compelling story.  Even with the very negative cultural values Wang Lung embodies, he still manages to be a sympathetic character. 

Why was it so popular?
            One of the major through-lines in The Good Earth is a conflict between the rich and poor.  While millions of farmers and laborers are starving, the extremely rich are profiting or, in the case of the House of Hwang, deteriorating due to their own opulence, and, in the end, “when the rich are too rich there are ways, and when the poor are too poor there are ways…”

            The bestselling novel of 1931 and 1932, The Good Earth was released during the Great Depression, when millions were out of work due a combination of the collapse of the world economy due to (at least in part) the actions of bankers and government officers and investors, etc., leading to many banks going bankrupt, and millions to lose all their savings.  Additionally, a years-long drought began in Oklahoma in 1930, destroying the agriculture business in the region.  A story about a poor farmer who gains power and prestige by buying (or taking) it from the wealthy would be a popular story.  Perhaps it’s worth noticing that, of the eighteen other books reviewed so far, only Edna Ferber’s So Big is a rags to riches story, and one that also is based on farmers. 

I think I've heard of this one...
           The popularity of The Good Earth has surged and waned over the last eighty years, in 2004 reaching the bestsellers list again after an endorsement from Oprah.  Like most of the bestsellers I’ve covered, The Good Earth received a film adaptation. 

            Released in 1937, The Good Earth, starring Paul Muni as Wang Lung, won the Oscar for best actress (Luise Rainer as O-lan) and best Cinematography at the tenth Academy Awards ceremony.  It was nominated for best picture, but lost to The Life of Emile Zola, starring Paul Muni.

Should I read it?
            Yes.  Quite simply put, it is a good book.  It has an emotionally compelling story, a historical function, and themes that are still relevant today.

Also published in 1931 & 1932:  

Sanctuary - William Faulkner
Light in August - William Faulkner
1919 (second book of U.S.A. trilogy) - John Dos Passos
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Mourning Becomes Electra - Eugene O'Neill


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  2. I fell in love with Pearl Buck's writing with this book. I really felt I was getting a peek behind the curtain of pre-revolution China. The life of O-Lan was agonizing to read about. I so desperately wanted to rescue her. Interesting that The Good Earth beat out such other greats by Falkner and others. I can see the subject..and the idea of being in a desperate situation you might want to read about a family that was in a much worse situation that yourself. And the fact the family was, even though by our standards maybe not, improving their lot in life.

    I'm so glad to have found your blog and to be able to follow your journey.