1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

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From the Back Cover:

Though more than sixty years have passed since this remarkable novel won the Pulitzer Prize, it has retained its popularity and become one of the great modern classics. “I can only write what I know, and I know nothing but China, having always lived there,” writes Pearl Buck. In The Good Earth she presents a graphic view of a China when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings for the ordinary people. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during the twentieth century.

My Thoughts:

The Good Earth was assigned reading for most of my friends somewhere in middle school or early high school, and I only ever heard them speak of it with dread, although that was all I heard them say about any of the books they had to read. For some reason or the other, though, I managed to avoid reading it during my grade school years. When it came time to approach this novel, though, I had some apprehensions stemming from the early negative feedback I heard about it, despite finding that I enjoyed many of the books I’d initially dismissed in grade school when I had the chance to go back and read them without the label “homework” or the pressure to finish them before I was tested over them. These initial apprehensions soon fell apart as I read the book and was caught up in the life of Wang Lung, the poor Chinese farmer.

The story itself follows and old clichéd pattern: the poor protagonist, through hard work and a little bit of luck, pulls himself up out of poverty to a life of wealth and luxury. But despite the use of an otherwise overused trope in storytelling, The Good Earth is still fresh and engrossing, and provides a look at a culture that was otherwise unknown to most Americans who read this book in the early 1930s.

Wang Lung is a poor farmer who takes care of his father and the small plot of land they own, working faithfully and tirelessly to provide enough to get by for the two of them. He is so poor he cannot even afford a wedding, except to a slave from the rich house of the village. His new wife’s loyalty and work ethic soon win Wang Lung over, however, and they struggle to do more than just make ends meet.

Wang Lung’s rise in wealth wouldn’t be interesting without a few setbacks, but the drought that forces them south to beg in the streets is a harsh and seemingly insurmountable obstacle to Wang Lung and his family. It is also during this time that we get the best picture of the larger Chinese culture outside of the small farming villages. Wang Lung encounters Caucasian missionaries, poor revolutionaries, and army conscriptions, but all of these things interest him only so much as they will keep him from his land, or help him get back to it to farm again.

Wang Lung is scoffed by the revolutionaries for only wanting to farm, instead of wanting the ease and luxury of the rich for himself, but when the poor revolt and loot the houses of the rich, Wang Lung takes money to get back to the land, and to start farming again. As he begins to collect more and more land, loving and farming it, he soon begins to find himself rich, and his struggles throughout the second half of the book become the things that keep him away from the land. Eventually, as Wang Lung grows old and wealthy, he finds a balance and a peace in still going back to his land, even though he is no longer able work the land himself. The final tragedy of the novel, though, is the attitude of his sons, who grew up more accustomed to comfort than labor, and don’t have the respect of the land like their father does.

Though this novel is set during a time of political and social turmoil in China, Wang Lung is uninterested, and for the most part uninvolved, except the few times in the novel when the larger upheaval slides by in the peripheral vision of the narrative. The Good Earth is not a novel about the larger changes occurring in China, it is a novel about the hard working farmer class, and about their connection to the land. It highlights a culture that most readers of the time would have been completely ignorant, and a culture that most people today still no nothing about, even though the farming and family culture remain strong in the rural areas of China.

But on top of providing an interesting look at that culture, the success of The Good Earth and it’s Pulitzer Prize win shed an interesting light on American culture and lifestyle in the 1930’s. It was published during the height of the Great Depression in the United States, many of the readers could associate with a farmer driven away from his home because of drought. Wang Lung’s eventual success and wealth was a fantasy they were probably happy to lose themselves in. A New York Times review of the novel upon its publication stated that it presented “a China in which, happily, there is no hint of mystery or exoticism. There is very little in her book of the quality which we are accustomed to label ‘Oriental.’” On top of presenting China in what Buck attempted to make realistic instead of sensational or glamorous, she presents China in a way that is sympathetic and in some ways close to home, especially for the original readers. There was a shortening of distance between cultures created by The Good Earth in a day before air travel, when most people could barely dream of seeing the other side of America, much less the other side of the world. Pearl Buck made China at once approachable and familiar, while at the same time highlighting the unique cultures present there.

Favorite passage:

There was a day when summer was ended and the sky in the early morning was clear and cold and blue as sea water and a clean autumn wind blew hard over the land, and Wang Lung woke as from a sleep. He went to the door of his house and he looked over his fields, and he saw that the waters had receded and the land lay shining under the ardent sun.

Then a voice cried out to him, a voice deeper than love cried out in him for his land. And he heard it above every other voice in his life and he tore off the long robe he wore and he stripped off his velvet shoes and his white stockings, and he rolled his trousers to his knees and he stood forth robust and eager and he shouted,

“Where is the hoe and where is the plow? And where is the seed for the wheat planting? Come, Ching, my friend­-come-call the men-I go out to the land!”

Why you should read it:

If you weren’t disillusioned by having to read this book in grade school (or maybe even though you were), The Good Earth provides not only an entertaining rags to riches story, full of all the ups and downs necessary to keep it from getting stale, but also a fascinating look at the cultural strata surrounding small farming villages in China at the turn of the twentieth century.

Currently reading: The Store by T. S. Stribling

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