Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Promise by Pearl S. Buck

The sequel to Dragon Seed
The Promise, a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, was originally published in 1943. It is a sequel to Buck’s 1942 novel Dragon Seed, but the publisher of the ebook edition gives no indication of this whatsoever. Only after I began reading the book did I realize, “Hey, I already know all these characters.” It’s important to note because if you haven’t already read Dragon Seed you’ll be lost in chapter one. Dragon Seed described the 1939 Japanese invasion of eastern China, as told through the eyes of Ling Tan and his family, who live in a village outside Nanking. The Promise opens in 1941. The family is still living under Japanese occupation. One son, Lao San, who goes by the name of Sheng in this novel, has left home and is battling the invaders as a freedom fighter.

The Promise referred to in the title is explained in chapter one. The people of Mei and Ying promised to come to the aid of China if they were ever attacked. Now the Chinese people are waiting and hoping that these two great nations will live up to that promise. Mei is America and Ying is England. Sheng leads a military expedition into British-occupied Burma to help the Brits repel the Japanese invasion there. While in Burma, the Chinese forces are commanded by an American, who may or may not be based on a real historical figure. As she typically does, Buck writes this historical novel with almost no specific proper nouns. For example, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese military, and his wife are referred to simply as the Ones Above. Nevertheless, despite the deliberate obscurity, the reader does get an education into this lesser-known campaign of World War II. Told from a Chinese perspective, the story depicts the Americans and Brits as well-intentioned imperialists whose racist attitude toward their Asian subjects leads to the needless loss of human lives.

Stylistically, Buck’s writing is like a cross between the socially conscious realism of the early 20th century, like The Grapes of Wrath and The Jungle, and the romantic television miniseries of the 1970s, like The Thorn Birds or Rich Man, Poor Man. Her novels are intelligent, moving, and skillfully crafted, with just a hint of sweet, sticky sap flowing beneath the surface. Still, those with a tolerance for romanticism will not only not mind this aspect of Buck’s work but will in fact come to enjoy it. This sequel is actually superior to its predecessor. Dragon Seed was marked by an uncomfortable inconsistency. The first half of the book consisted of brutally realistic depictions of war crimes, while the second half was all rosy optimism. The Promise proceeds on a much more even keel, rarely resorting to either extreme, and the book is better for it. Though it lacks the shocking, indelible scenes of atrocity that punctuate Dragon Seed, The Promise is a thoroughly engaging saga that convincingly conveys the stirring urgency of the life and death struggles of wartime. The final chapter is a bit weak, but not enough to discount the strength of the book as a whole.

Buck is best-known, of course, for her House of Earth trilogy, consisting of The Good Earth, Sons, and A House Divided. Could Dragon Seed and The Promise be the beginning and middle volumes of another trilogy? Though I’ve found no evidence to support this theory, given the ending of this book and the title of her next novel, China Flight, I suspect this is the case. After the experience I had reading this book, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if Ling Tan and his family show up unannounced in another of Buck’s books.

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