33. The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck
I still have three birthday books to mention – my bounty is seemingly unending! – but I’ve just finished a library book, and wanted to write about that before returning it. This is quite unusual, and it seems I currently wait until all memory of a book has faded before attempting to blog about it… those who can spot a flaw in this plan, you’re not alone. This one is going straight into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.
I am usually wary of that common book group phrase: “Well, that’s the point of book groups, isn’t it – to make us read things we wouldn’t normally read.” This is almost invariably said when people have hated a book… and, to be honest, there’s usually a reason I don’t read the books that I ‘wouldn’t normally read’. BUT I was forced to use this very expression at book group on Wednesday, concerning Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.
I don’t know why I’d heard of Buck – possibly because she won the Nobel Prize, and this 1931 novel was a huge bestseller – but there was nothing about this novel which appealed, aside from publication date. Not realising that Buck was brought up in China, I thought this would be akin to a travel guide; the mentions of poverty, peasants, heartbreak, and deception in the blurb made this sound like a tiresome specimen of misery lit; bestselling books, let’s be honest, tend not to equate with great books. But it all just goes to show that all the signs can point in one direction, and yet the novel turn out to be completely unexpected. In the case of The Good Earth, it turned out to be unexpectedly brilliant.
The novels tells the story of a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung. The land is everything to him; it provides or withholds; it is a sign of wealth and status; it is his livelihood. This is the strongest theme of the novel, and one that survives all the human interaction. In bare bones, The Good Earth documents the descent into poverty, and raise into riches, of Wang Lung and his expanding family. They travel south to avoid starvation, begging to survive – always with the intention to return to the land they own. When they do, and when they become rich, there are other intrusions and temptations which mar their good fortune. Across 350 or so pages, the narrative eye does not wander from this family’s experience – Buck decides, wisely in my opinion, to show the state of China in the 1920s and ’30s through the world of a few individuals, rather than great political swathes.
Wang Lung lives with his father, and early in the novel he has decided to get himself a wife. This is no Austenesque tale of courtship: it has been decided before the narrative begins that Wang Lung will be married to a slave from the house of the area’s great family – meekly, uncertainly he enters these courts to collect O-lan, who is described thus by the Great and Ancient Lady of the house:
“This woman came into our house when she was a child of ten and here she has lived until now, when she is twenty years old. I bought her in a year of famine when her parents came south because they had nothing to eat. They were from the north in Shantung and there they returned, and I know nothing further of them. You see she has the strong body and the square cheeks of her kind. She will work well for you in the field and drawing water and all else that you wish. She is not beautiful but that you do not need. Only men of leisure have the need for beautiful women to divert them. Neither is she clever. But she does well what she is told to do and she has a good temper. So far as I know she is a virgin. She has not beauty enough to tempt my sons and grandsons even if she had not been in the kitchen.”
The blurb of my borrowed copy tries valiantly to turn The Good Earth into a feminist text, but it is not that. It is true that O-lan is ultimately the means of raising the family’s fortunes; it is true that she sacrifices much for her family, and is one of few in her family to remain steadfastly loyal, wise, and unselfish. But Buck doesn’t paint O-lan as a paragon, or hold Wang Lung up to disapprobation. It is the brilliance of The Good Earth, and Buck as a writer, that there is almost no sense of the author at all. Sometimes an author is evident in every word of a novel, through style or voice – and this can be either wonderful or dreadful. But I think it takes an even greater talent for the author to fade behind the characters and events, so they do not intrude at all. And this certainly isn’t because the characters’ minds take centre stage – Buck resists giving any sort of psychological insight, and instead allows events and dynamics between family members to have the most impact. Even the dialogue rarely wanders from the surface of characters’ thoughts and feelings – and while Wang Lung, sometime into marriage, ‘had learned now from that impassive square countenance to detect small changes at first invisible to him’, O-lan remains a closed book to the reader for much of the novel. A closed book psychologically, that is – it would yet be impossible not to be moved by O-lan’s life, including one moment where I gasped aloud.
If I had to choose one word to describe The Good Earth, it would indisputably be the word ‘authentic’. Presumably because Buck lived many years in China, she knew the culture inside out. Even reading it as an outsider, I felt enveloped by the culture – details I didn’t know (for example, wearing white for mourning) were mentioned, but subtly, not drawing attention to the reader’s ignorance. Somebody at book group commented that it occasionally felt as though it had been translated from Chinese – that’s how accurate the language and insights felt. Where a modern writer might feel they had to explain their own views, or condemn the sexism inherent to 1930s rural China, Buck bravely allows the characters simply to exist – without approval or disapproval. Instead there is simply the most involving and, yes, authentic narrative I have read for some time. Not a novel I would have imagined responding to thus, but I am very grateful to Yoanna for suggesting we read it – and hope to have encouraged you to do the same.