Friday, July 5, 2013

Sons by Pearl S. Buck

A respectable sequel to an exceptional novel
Sons, originally published in 1932, is the second novel in Pearl S. Buck’s The House of Earth trilogy, which begins with her best known work The Good Earth and concludes with the novel A House Divided. Sons picks up right where the The Good Earth left off, with Wang Lung on his deathbed while his family prepares for his funeral. As is foreshadowed at the end of The Good Earth, as soon as he dies his sons begin selling off his lands in order to pursue their own fortunes. The eldest son becomes a landlord, and wastes much of his wealth gratifying the desires of the flesh. The second son, a grain merchant, is a shrewd businessman and miser. The third son, who had previously gone off to become a soldier, returns to announce to his brothers that he wishes to become a warlord. To achieve this goal he enlists their help and financial backing. The novel primarily focuses on this third son, nicknamed Wang the Tiger, as he gradually increases his military might.

Sons is a novel that moves at a rather slow, measured pace. The first half of the book could even be called dull. The characters all basically act as one would expect them to, with few surprises. Even the steps that Wang the Tiger follows to achieve warlord status are rather predictable to anyone who’s ever seen a Chinese historical epic. Thankfully, the second half of the book is much better. There are some truly moving scenes, several of which involve the character of Pear Blossom, Wang Lung’s former concubine, who is possibly the only character in the book who doesn’t act out of pure self-interest. While the sons struggle to amass their fortunes, she alone pays proper respect to Wang Lung’s memory. Sons is not as compelling a novel as The Good Earth, probably because the whole warlord story line is not as readily identifiable to the common reader as the more universal family themes explored in that previous novel. One recurring theme that does strikes a chord with the reader, however, is the frequent disappointment that fathers feel toward their sons, which is brought on not only by the unrealistic expectations of the parent but also by the child’s inevitable need to rebel and assert his independence.

While The Good Earth depicted life in China under the old imperial order and the fall of the Qing dynasty, Sons deals with the period of unrest that followed, when China was divided up into the territories of battling warlords. One assumes that the third volume, A House Divided, will cover the rise of Communism. If you haven’t read The Good Earth then Sons will be meaningless to you. It mainly serves as a bridge between the first and third volumes and doesn’t really stand alone as a novel in its own right. Nevertheless, it serves its purpose quite admirably. Even when the plot fails to impress, Buck’s prose is a joy to read. Her simple, unadorned phrasing imbues this story with the poetic beauty of a Chinese folk tale. The narrative is punctuated by moments of great emotional power and poignancy. Though this may not be her best book, Sons amply exhibits the literary talent and skill that earned Buck the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Moyer Bell publishing company deserves a hearty thanks for keeping so many of Buck’s novels in print for all these years. For those looking to read beyond The Good Earth, they have long been the one reliable source to turn to. Even so, the typesetting of their paperback editions is so tight it causes eye strain to the point of exhaustion. Luckily, Open Road Media has recently come out with a series of Buck novels for the Kindle that are much easier on the eyes. Regardless of which option you prefer, Buck’s body of work deserves to be read.

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