Friday, May 11, 2018

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Posted from my Good Reads review

The Good Earth
This was a book that I never would have read if it hadn't been a selection of my book group. It came laden with associations from my childhood of a work carrying the Book-of-the-Month-Club seal of approval, and I thought it would be old-fashioned and sentimental. The fact that it became an Oprah pick seemed like just a modern day version of that old model. Moral uplift and edification.

I just read Celeste Ng's review of the book, which I happened upon here at Good Reads. She hates the book and has good reasons for doing so. Her complete diatribe (and I say that in praise, not condemnation) can be found at The Huffington Post. But she admits that her critique is really of the way the West embraced the book and took it as a sort of one volume encyclopedia on all things Chinese. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story, we get into trouble when we infer too much from one person's story, making them stand for a much more complex whole.

But I don't think Buck was attempting to interpret the whole of China for us. I don't even know that she was trying to write a realistic novel. The Good Earth came across to me as more of a fable. Her storytelling style struck me not so much as literary than as biblical or saga-like, and as someone who came from a missionary family, she was probably more formed by that book's way of speaking than many of us are.

Wang Lung, her protagonist, is not interesting because he is Chinese. He is an everyman figure. He could be a peasant farmer in any culture where most people live at a subsistence level. Buck is more interested, I think, in showing us his drive to succeed and the inherent pitfalls in that sort of monomania. In the end it is more of a morality tale than an anthropological study. To her credit, there is no missionary proselytizing in her story. At perhaps the only point that Christianity overtly enters the story, it comes across as incomprehensible to Wang Lung.

Perhaps Buck's greatest accomplishment in this story was not to 'explain China' to the West, but to get her readers to empathize with Wang Lung as a human being with ambitions and faults (or if not with him, with his long suffering wife, O-lan) but also virtues, similar to our own. At the time of its publication in 1931, anti-Chinese sentiments were still alive and well in America, which is not to say they have died off even now.

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