Pearl S. Buck
I've studied Chinese history and read dozens of books about China, but one book so overshadows all the others that I might as well not have read them --- and I first read that key book when I was about 12. Since 1931, Pearl S. Buck's page-turner of a novel has had that effect on millions of readers. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It won the Nobel. "The Good Earth" was even annointed by Oprah, making any praise from me both minor-key and redundant.
I remember it as a lurid tale. Wang Lung, a simple farmer, has sex with O-Lan, his wife! O-Lan gives birth in the fields! [In fact, she doesn't.] Wang Lung visits a brothel! Wang Lung takes a mistress! Several loose women and a few bad men smoke opium!
I've just re-read "The Good Earth" --- and it's a different book now.
It's still a love story, and a passionate one at that, but the love is named right in the title --- this is a novel about one man's romance with the earth. Wang Lung is a simple peasant, young in the late 19th century but living much as his ancestors did. As the book begins, on his wedding day, his priorities are clear:
A soft wind blew glently from the east, a wind mild and murmorous and full of rain. It was a good omen. There would be no rain this day, but within a few days, if this wind continued, there would be water. It was good. Yesterday he had said to his father that if this brazen, glittering sunshine continued, the wheat could not fill in the ear. Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to wish him well. Earth would bear fruit.
O-Lan is no beauty. But she is a faithful wife and a beast of a worker. And in the fields, the couple achieves a pastoral harmony: "Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor." O-Lan, tellingly, works "in the harvest field" almost to the hour she gives birth. Soon after, she returns with the baby, who spends his days on a quilt in the fields as his parents work: "The woman and the child were as brown as the soil and they sat there like figures made of earth."
Terrible things happen: drought, famine, flight, violence, theft. But when Wang Lung and his family return to their land, prosperity returns with them. Wang Lung acquires more land. At harvest, his rooms are full of grain and garlic. His family grows. He is a man of respect.
But man cannot live in Paradise. Or is it that Paradise itself is under constant threat? Wang Lung now sees the things that money can buy. He encounters women who make him forget O-Lan's many virtues. He takes a mistress, makes her a wife, brings her into his home. And now his home is a nest of troubles, for he has ignored his fields, forgotten his children, and created jealousy that he has no way to handle.
It is Pearl S. Buck's great achievement that we are both outraged on O-Lan's behalf and understanding of Wang Lung's longings. And we can only admire how, as we race through the book, we see this is not just a novel about China on the eve on change from a largely agrarian society, it is also a universal book --- a chronicle of the stages of all our loves. We aspire, we attain, and, instead of cultivating what is now ours, we aspire again. And the results usually aren't pretty.
Will Wang Lung regain his good sense? Will his sons grow up to manage his fields? Will he notice the gem that is O-Lan before sickness carries her off? In contemporary fiction, these are ridiculous questions; who could care about a silly Chinese farmer's joys about troubles? But once you start reading "The Good Earth" --- a traditional novel, told in a traditional style --- you find you care enormously.
Would that there were more books as addictive as this --- for 12-year-old readers and the adults they will become.
To buy "The Good Earth" from Amazon.com, click here.