Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

A timeless epic of land and family
In an earthen house in a rural Chinese village lives a poor farmer. One day he ventures into the nearest town to call at the door of the Hwang family, the richest landowners in the region. It is Wang Lung’s wedding day, and he has come to claim his bride. A slave of this wealthy household has been promised to him in a prearranged marriage. After their unceremonious introduction, Wang Lung and his new wife, O-Lan, return to the land his family has worked for generations. While struggling against the challenges of poverty, famine, natural disasters, and war, they proceed to build a family. Through hard work, prudent choices, personal sacrifice, and a little luck, the family gradually rises from their humble beginnings to a position of security and status.

The Good Earth, originally published in 1931, is the first in a trilogy of novels by Pearl S. Buck, continuing with Sons and ending with A House Divided. Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, largely on the strength of these three works. The Good Earth takes place over the course of a few decades in the early twentieth century, including scenes of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 which overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Despite Wang Lung’s lack of knowledge or interest in political affairs, the Revolution proves to have an influential effect on the family’s fortunes. Buck provides a vivid, insider’s perspective of Chinese society at this crucial turning point on the path from antiquity to modernity. Though born in America, Buck was raised in China by her missionary parents. Her love for the Chinese people and reverence for their culture shine through prominently in this work.

The Good Earth is more than just an excellent historical novel, for it deals with universal themes that are relevant to families of all cultures. Though slavery, concubines, opium, and the rise of Communism may be unique to the time and place depicted in the narrative, the family’s triumphs and tragedies carry an emotional resonance that transcends time and place. All readers can relate to the book’s depiction of the satisfaction brought by honest work, the love of parents for their children, the desire for the acquisition of wealth to improve the prospects of those children, the excessive pride that comes with such wealth, and the difference in values and expectations that arise between parents and their children as those children grow up to become adults. A recurring theme, as evidenced by the book’s title, is Wang Lung’s love for the land. The further he and O-Lan drift from their simple agrarian roots the less happy their lives become. The children, on the other hand, are all too eager to renounce the farming life, but though they may succeed in urban pursuits, somehow their lives seem devoid of meaning with no connection to the land. For some, this vision of rural life may seem overly romanticized, but for readers who are receptive to such a message the book leaves a powerful and meaningful impression. Anyone who has enjoyed such agricultural epics as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil will feel a similar kinship to The Good Earth.

Throughout the book, Buck’s prose is absolutely superb. Not a word is wasted. Every letter she pens goes to forward the story, without any pretentious or self-indulgent wordcraft. At times the text bears the simplicity of a fairy tale, yet the imagery is grounded in gritty realism. With a few sparse phrases, Buck manages to paint pictures of incredible power and depth. Nowadays Buck’s name is rarely mentioned among America’s greatest writers, yet her Nobel Prize was no fluke, and she definitely deserves high regard for this masterpiece. Were it not set in China, The Good Earth might just be the Great American Novel.

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  1. I so enjoyed your review. She is often criticized for her "lack of style." I couldn't disagree more. I think she had a distinctive and completely recognizable style. The simplicity, the clarity, and the rhythm of her prose are profound yet unpretentious. I highly recommend her memoirs "My Several Worlds." Again, she was criticized for what she did not tell in these memoirs; however, she was a reticent person and what she did share is endlessly fascinating and remains fresh and compelling.

  2. Thank you for the recommendation. So far I have only read The Good Earth and Sons, but I've recently purchased a few of the new Kindle editions of her books, and am looking forward to reading them. The criticism of "lack of style" definitely seems unjust. If anything, many of her contemporaries had too much style, and not enough substance.