Moving together in perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return to earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together – together – producing the fruit of this earth – speechless in their movement together. -From The Good Earth, page 31-
Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth was published in 1931 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. It has been surrounded by controversy (mostly in China where Buck’s work was banned for many years because of the perceived vilification of the Chinese people and their leaders). Having arrived in China as the child of missionaries, Buck grew to love the country. In 1935 she returned to the United States with hope of one day returning to the Orient…but this was never to be. She was denounced by the Chinese government in 1960 as “a proponent of American cultural imperialism.” Later, just nine months before her death, her visa to return to the country of her childhood was denied. In 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. More about Buck’s life and work can be found in this excellent article published by Mike Meyer of the New York Times.
The Good Earth is the saga of Wang Lung, who is a poor farmer dependent on the land for his survival, and his extended family. The novel begins with this complex character as a young man when he marries a slave girl, and then follows him as he grows into a man with a family and wealth beyond his imaginings. Wang Lung is a man with a compassionate heart. I was touched by the love of his children, especially that of his developmentally delayed oldest daughter who he calls “the poor fool.” In one scene, the family is faced with starvation and Wang Lung gives up his own food for his daughter…something that would have been highly unusual at that time in China.
Only a few of the beans did Wang Lung hide in his own hand and these he put into his own mouth and he chewed them into a soft pulp and then putting his lips to the lips of his daughter he pushed into her mouth the food, and watching her small lips move, he felt himself fed. -From The Good Earth, page 85-
Later, as he gains wealth, Wang Lung loses his path – and his inner goodness is challenged.
Wang Lung’s pragmatic wife O-Lan represents the strength of the Chinese women during a time when women were considered to be a man’s possession and slave. Throughout the novel, the idea of the cyclical nature of life is repeated, establishing a natural rhythm for the story.
Buck writes in simple prose which reads more like the oral tradition of story telling than a novel. Her understanding of character is evident throughout – and no character is all good or all evil.
I immediately was captivated by Buck’s story; and even though at times the abuse and mistreatment of women was hard to read, I found I could not put the book down for long.
Buck wrote two sequels to The Good Earth: Sons (1931) and A House Divided (1935). I have put both on my wish list for future reading.
The Good Earth is a book I can highly recommend for its insight into Chinese culture during the early part of the 20th century, and for its high readability.