The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
One of those classics that eluded me through high school and college English classes, The Good Earth surfaced for me recently as I read a favorable review of a new biography of Buck [Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling]. I was reminded that TGE had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and Buck the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938. Maybe I should see if the library still has a copy... Yes! Many copies, many formats. People are still reading it, these many years later. The CRRL paperback that came my way was identified as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2004.
TGE tells the story of peasant farmer Wang Lung, his lifelong relationship with the land and the family he creates with his wife O-Lan. Buck makes these simple people the face of a China that is in the beginning throes of the political upheaval that would transform centuries-old cultural and societal norms over the course of the 20th century. At the outset we follow Wang Lung as he sets out to buy his wife, a slave in the house of Hwang; O-Lan is considered a good buy since she is too ugly to have been defiled by the rich men in the big house. The book is suffused with irony; the author draws her characters, paints the world for the reader as seen through their eyes. The devastating effect of years of flood and famine on the Wang Lungs across rural China is remarkably drawn without fanfare or hyperbole. Their brutal world where begging, infanticide, and mysogeny are unquestioned is filled with stoic, illiterate, patient people. In the end, the land enriches Wang Lung, and his epic rags to riches journey is a page turner.
Pearl Buck was born in rural China in 1892, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She spoke Chinese before she spoke English, and she was educated in China until coming to Virginia to attend Randolph-Macon Women's College. As a young wife and teacher, living in China with her husband who was an agricultural reformer, she knew intimately the farm families of the villages where she had lived as a child.