The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck

March 26, 2010 § 21 Comments

Every quarter, Mee (Bookie Mee), Claire (Kiss a Cloud), Mark David (Absorbed in Words) and myself choose a piece of Asian literature to read together. We’re friendly people, and love sharing thoughts, so everyone else who’s interested in the books we’ve chosen to read is welcome to join us.

Beginning this Asian journey was Mee’s choice of reading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Prior to this, I’ve only vaguely heard of her name before, but didn’t know anything about her, much less about her work. Interestingly, though, when I brought the book home from the library, my mum immediately recognised her name, and told me that she’s read a lot of her books. This in itself is quite something, considering the fact that my mum can borrow the same book from the library twice and not know that she’s read the book or author before, until she gets to about page 50.

That aside, my mum did comment that she loved reading Pearl Buck’s books when she was younger. So I knew that I would be in for a good book.

It says on the back of the book that it presents “a graphic view” of China, and never was there a more honest blurb. The book starts with Wang Lung’s marriage day. As a farmer, there is much observation of the weather, of the coming rain, and the happiness of the anticipated harvest. It can be awfully mundane, this keen interest in the weather, and yet it rings so true, and at once, I saw in my mind’s eye the land extending from his little house, the rolling clouds just beyond, the subtle wind. I saw the dark room in which he dwelled; I heard his father coughing and complaining about not getting his warm water quickly enough. Everything was there, right in front of my eyes.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve grown up watching the many movies that depict this side of China: the farmers working their land, hair tied in pigtails, work clothes soiled, sleeves rolled up to their elbows. And I don’t know how people who have not watched movies like this before would be able to imagine the details of Wang Lung’s life and dwelling like I have. But Pearl Buck definitely did a good job painting such vivid scenes, and in such simple language too.

As I mentioned, the story starts with Wang Lung’s marriage day. And so the story continues, as Wang Lung starts a new life with his wife, O-lan, a slave from the rich House of Huang.

This is a book that reads pretty much like how life really is: one thing leads to another, and it becomes quite impossible to say something without mentioning the next, and very soon, there you have the whole story laid out like a carpet in front of you. It plods along slowly, like a farmer working on his land, raising and lowering his hoe upon the land tirelessly, day in day out, in hopes that the good earth will yield him a good harvest. It is a patient book, a story that is told without rush or hurry, like a painting done with clean broad strokes.

Thus spring wore on again and again and vaguely and more vaguely as these years passed he felt it coming. But still one thing remained to him and it was his love for his land.

This is a book that is honest: it doesn’t ask for pity for a particular character, nor does it ask that you look with disgust at another. It tells the story like how it is, it gives no apologies, and it makes no excuses. It’s a story of how the beauty and ugliness in life and people share the same space.

And men and women labored at the cutting and contriving of heavy furs for the winter and of soft light furs for spring and at the thick brocaded sils, to cut and shape them into sumptuous robes for the ones who ate of the profusion at the markets, and they themselves snatched a bit of course blue cotton cloth and sewed it hastily together to cover their bareness.

This is a book that lets you get up close and personal with the characters, and truly, for a few days I forgot that they were characters in a book, and thought of them as my own family.

Rating: 4.5

* Note: The book we’ve chosen (Claire’s choice) for next quarter (last week of June) is Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City.

* Note #2: I don’t want to ruin this book for those who’ve not read this yet, so I’m putting some of my other thoughts on page 2. As a note of precaution, some of the comments might also carry spoilers.

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§ 21 Responses to The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck

  • chasing bawa says:

    I read this book on my dad’s recommendation and remember being very affected by it. I think it was my first exposure to Chinese history and society that wasn’t from a textbook, The harshness of rural life and the intricacies of marriage was also a revelation as was the graphic descriptions of foot-binding (unless I’m thinking of Buck’s ‘Imperial Woman’ about the Dowager Empress Tsu Hsi – I read this a long time ago so my recollections are a little foggy.)

    • Michelle says:

      Hmm… This book rarely talks about foot-binding, because it’s about peasant life, and peasants didn’t have the ‘privilege’ of foot-binding.

      But still, thanks for mentioning Imperial Woman. I’ve yet to actually read any book about the Dowager Empress, and having so enjoyed this book, I’d love to read another by Pearl Buck.

  • Amanda says:

    I read/reviewed this about a year ago. I’ve never read much in Asian literature, nor seen much tv/movies about the culture, so this was completely new to me. It completely swept me away. I absolutely loved it. And you said it perfect: “This is a book that is honest: it doesn’t ask for pity for a particular character, nor does it ask that you look with disgust at another. It tells the story like how it is, it gives no apologies, and it makes no excuses.” That’s exactly right. That surprised me when I read it.

    Now I’m off to read Page 2…

  • Amanda says:

    As these are the same set of comments, I’ll keep spoilers out here, but I did want to say after reading your second page, I think you’re absolutely right. My favorite thing about the book was the total indifference of the world towards the characters’ fates. Each generation does what they want, regardless of the person who came before them. In the end, our lives are only important to ourselves, to be forgotten or disregarded when we are gone. That didn’t feel hopeless to me, just honest. The world keeps going. I liked that.

    • Michelle says:

      I completely agree. It was like what you said, the world keeps spinning, and things continue happening, no matter what happens to us individually. Life goes on, one thing effects the next, and what might have been the most important thing in your life could one day become obscure and forgotten.

      Thanks for your comments Amanda.

  • sagustocox says:

    This is one of those books that has been on my must read list for some time.

  • Aimee says:

    Arrgh, I am so going to get this book read. It might be behind the times of everyone else…maybe early April is more likely for my review to be up.

    Love asian trad culture stuff.

    x
    Aimee

  • Nymeth says:

    I love this line: “It is a patient book, a story that is told without rush or hurry, like a painting done with clean broad strokes.” I completely agree, and this brings me to another thing I loved about the book: the sense of inevitability that permeated everything. The characters were both strong and vulnerable, both determined and helpless. They did their best under circumstances they couldn’t control, and that’s true of so many of us. As for the ending, it felt inevitable to me too, though it made me sad for Wang Lung.

    • Michelle says:

      Love your comment, and your own post as well, Ana. You’ve definitely said what I wanted to say, about the duality of everything.

      About the ending, yea, I was sad for Wang Lung. And I’m thinking, maybe because I’m of Chinese descent, I do understand a lot more about how important owning land can actually be.Selling off land was almost equated to selling your soul and body to the devil. I’m not sure if it’s still viewed like this now, but it definitely isn’t favoured.

  • This sounds wonderful. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read this classic yet. I must pick it up one day. Thanks for the review.

  • mee says:

    It’s so interesting that you thought O-Lan was almost invisible until she’s dying. For me O-Lan grabbed my attention very early on and stayed so until the end. It was a story about Wang Lung as much as it was a story about O-Lan. I thought the book lost something very important after she died and I lost a part of me that was so excited about the book at the beginning.

    By the way, my mom also knows Pearl S. Buck and she has read her books. In fact she was the one who introduced me to her work long long time ago back when I was still a high school student in Indonesia (I think I read 1 book but can’t remember which). But somehow she was just forgotten until I re-found The Good Earth. I’m guessing her books were very popular in SE Asia, and maybe still are. I did find many of her translated books at the bookshop when I went back to Jakarta a couple of weeks ago.

    • Michelle says:

      Well, it’s not that I didn’t realise her existence or anything. It’s just, she felt quite sidelined for me, and sometimes I tended to ‘forget’ about her. When she died, a little part of me died too. That was definitely the saddest part of the book for me.

  • Mark David says:

    That’s very perceptive of you. Yes, I agree that the story is graphic in the sense that the imagery and emotions are so acute even though when you inspect the prose, much of the really stirring images are just implied or quickly mentioned. And of course, it’s also graphic in the sense that some of the images are quite distressing (e.g., O-Lan’s baby during the time of famine).

    So glad we read this book together! I’m the least Chinese among the four of us, but this experience made me feel like we set out to trace our roots 🙂

  • Mark David says:

    I didn’t hate Wang Lung for all his mistakes because of the way he showed his love for his “little fool”. Speaking of which, I appreciated the way Pearl wrote her prose in a way that would be so evocative of the atmosphere and customs of those times, just like the way she used the term “little fool”—it really makes the reader feel how people in the story viewed the child’s pitiful condition.

    Like you, I also didn’t think about Lotus’ situation and background before I read that question at the end of the book. And when I read it, I thought it was also wrong of me to hate Lotus even for just a bit because she herself had been a victim at a very young age, and this likely shaped her character. It’s just as how we can’t really blame the other characters for thinking so low about the females because that was the custom of their time. Their traditions shaped them into what there were. Though, of course, it’s still so sad to think about.

  • Nishita says:

    I was in high school when my dad asked me to read this book. This was the first book I read that was based in China. Very affecting work, and really made me curious about a country that I had not really thought about very much till then…

    • Michelle says:

      It does have a way of sucking you into the landscape and environment, doesn’t it? It’s just a really visual book, and one that almost makes you want to participate in it, simply by the fact that it doesn’t force you to participate.

  • kiss a cloud says:

    (Finally, I get to read The Good Earth posts and join in on the discussion, very late! I had a taxing few weeks and couldn’t focus online so much.)

    How apt that you call this a patient and honest book. I certainly agree. There’s a simplicity in it, free of fuss and frills, that reflects so much the disposition and characteristic of Wang Lung, being an uneducated common farmer, but one who has ambitions and dreams of his own yet who can never exactly get through to his sons because of the heightened degree of their intellect in comparison to their father.

    Do you think the reason why you had only bonded with O-lan when she was dying was because she was so submissive and silent that we never (as the reader) got to really hear what she felt and thought?

    • Michelle says:

      I think you’re definitely right about why I only bonded with O-lan when she was dying. Before that part, she was as much a character as she was part of the background, I think. Especially because the whole story was told from Wang Lung’s point of view.

      I’m sorry I hadn’t been to your blog to comment on this, but I did read your post, and enjoyed it. Looking forward to sharing more thoughts with you come June!

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