Monday, August 31, 2015

China Flight by Pearl S. Buck

Good old-fashioned World War II-era potboiler
China Flight, published in 1943, is a novel by Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck. It is not one of her better known works, and possibly hasn’t been reprinted since the 1950s. I sought out this book because I suspected it might be the third novel in a trilogy with Dragon Seed (1942) and The Promise (1943). I was wrong about that, however, and it turns out that China Flight is a stand-alone novel. Regardless, I enjoy Buck’s writing and am rarely disappointed by her novels, so I was happy to read this book, even though it’s not one of her more renowned works.

The story begins shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. America has declared war on Japan, and all Americans are ordered to leave Japanese-occupied Shanghai. For one reason or another, three Americans have lingered past the departure deadline: Lieutenant Daniel James of the U.S. Marines, beautiful young journalist Jenny Barchet, and feisty middle-aged missionary Mrs. Shipman. These three, previously unacquainted, are apprehended and brought before the local Japanese commander. He makes Daniel a prisoner of war, interns Jenny in her hotel, and confines Mrs. Shipman to her mission. This brief meeting cements a bond between these three captives, and as each contemplates how to escape from his or her individual predicament and flee the Japanese, each resolves not to leave the other two behind.

The villain of the story is the Japanese official, Shigo Kuyoshi, a highly educated, culturally refined dandy, who’s nevertheless a brutal sadist. He falls in love with Jenny and wants to bend her to his will. Not surprisingly, Lieutenant Dan vows to protect her virtue. Shigo is a stereotypical villain, though thankfully not a racial stereotype. Buck, having been raised in China, is as free from anti-Asian racism as any American writer of her time. Nevertheless, this was World War II, so every Japanese soldier is depicted as unequivocally evil. Unlike many of the motion pictures of this time period, however, Shigo is not portrayed as a subhuman monster, but rather as the sort of oily, psychotic bad guy that nowadays might be played by Cristoph Waltz. Another Asian character that plays an important role in the book is Leone Hatford, a half-Chinese, half-French woman, married to a British banker, who attempts to aid the three captives in their escape. She becomes just as much a protagonist as the American characters of the novel.

Right from the get-go, China Flight is an engaging thriller, but as the story proceeds Buck drifts away from the action-adventure narrative in favor of soap-opera melodrama. This is a solid World War II era potboiler, but nothing exceptional in terms of literary quality. Unlike most of Buck’s novels, you won’t learn a lot about Chinese culture from this book. This is not a frank and brutal depiction of the reality of war under Japanese occupation, like Dragon Seed, but rather a romantic tale of wartime heroism focusing mostly on the American concerns of its American heroes. Despite the deep cultural knowledge of its author, this book feels more like a product of Hollywood than of Shanghai.

If you’re an enthusiastic fan of Buck, you’ll probably like this novel well enough. It’s no The Good Earth, but it has its merits. If you’re just a casual reader of Buck’s fiction, there’s no need to go out of your way to hunt this one down.
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