The Good Earth – Pearl S Buck
[Warning: This is a post on the most popular book of my most favorite author and I think, the author did not get her due. So, kindly excuse me if I go a little overboard.]
This book is so popular, most of you must have read it as a part of high school course. I had not.
More than 7 decades ago, The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck won the Pulitzer Prize and then, helped the author to go on and win the Nobel. The Good Earth reads like poetry of the war, of china, of farmers (some claim, not peasants), of women and men, of marriage between them, of extreme poverty and riches and, of birth and death.
This is set in rural China and, is a rags to riches story of a farmer and his family. The book begins on the wedding morning of Wang Lang who lives with his old father – with O-Lan, a slave girl at the great house in the town. The rest of the book is about what they go thru during the course of their lives.
When drought strikes, they travel to a city. There, they survive the poverty with great difficulty, undergoing a lot of life changes. Then, unexpectly, they come into riches. With these new found riches, they go back home and buy land, by which time the draught is gone, and go on to prosper.
O-Lan is the real hero of the book and she has a major part to play in charting the course of life of her family. Her strength and knowledge help the family survive in bad times and prosper in good times.
The feminism in the book is subtle and complex. O-lan does not fight for her rights. She cleverly nudges her family members into doing things, that change course of each one’s life and as a result, the fortune of the entire family. She wins their love and respect.
The books shows several ills in the Chinese society against women of this era. There are references to wife buying, female infanticide and foot binding among other things. When Wang Lang’s marital life is to begin, his father tells him:
“And what will we do with a pretty woman? We must have a woman who will tend the house and bear children as she works in the fields. A pretty woman will be forever thinking about clothes to go with her pretty face!”
When a female child is born into the family, she is considered “not worth mentioning” and Wang Lang considers that the time of misfortune has started for him. O-Lan is back in the field helping her husband within a few hours of child birth for she thinks, she does not even deserve rest for such a thing as giving birth to a girl. However, when a son is born, in order to ward off evil spirits, O-Lan and Wang Lung pretend thus:
“What a pity our child is a female whom no one could want and covered with smallpox as well! Let us pray it may die.”
Another big theme in the book is the role of earth. What earth is for Wang Lang becomes clear soon after the book begins.
The kitchen was made from earthen bricks as the house was, great squares of earth dug up from their own fields, and thatched with straw from their own wheat. Out of their own earth had his grandfather in his youth fashioned also the oven, baked and black with many years of meal preparing.
When, Wang Lang learns that the house of Hwang’s is growing poor, he does not believe it but when he discoveres they are selling their land, he says:
“Sell their land! Then indeed are they growing poor. Land is one’s flesh and blood.”
When, Wang Lang’s cousin proposes that he sells his land to certain people from the town during the drought when there is no food for anyone to eat, he says
“I shall never sell the land! Bit by bit, I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth.”
If you want to read a book for it’s plot, this is not the book for you. What you might want to read the book for is, Buck’s descriptions of little insignificant details of life in uncommon situations. For example, sights, sounds and smells of a city with abundant food and riches, from the eyes of starved rural people is pure magic. Her descriptions of food make you hungry. Her sentences are easy to read and understand. Yet, they are elegant, beautiful and powerful. If Salman Rushdie is at one end of the specturm with his complex sentences, this is the other end of the spectrum.
This is one of those books that people absolutely love or hate (especially, if it is course work). I do not generally re-read books but I have read this one thrice.
Pearl S Buck won the Nobel Prize, as per Nobel Foundation, “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”. However, some would argue, her depiction of China in the book is not entirely authentic – which might perhaps be true. I am not in a position to comment on that as I never stayed in China, not even visited her. However, Pearl S Buck is a brilliant author and has beautiful things to tell. If you are interested in exploring Pearl S Buck, I recommend Imperial Woman and Dragon Seed. I liked these books better than The Good Earth.