The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, Or: Jeez This Review is OverdueMarch 15, 2015
At its simplest, The Good Earth is the cradle-to-grave (or young-adult-to-grave) story of Wang Lung, a farmer in rural China. We first meet Lung on the way to retrieve his wife, O-lan, a slave of the House of Hwang (the sprawling home of very rich landowners in a neighboring town). We watch Lung start his family and move from simple beginnings to growing wealth as he purchases land. As his economic circumstances change, so do his tastes; he seeks out richer food, finer clothing, and quiet, dedicated O-lan pales in comparison to the painted courtesans of the town. All the while, the earth itself looms large in the background, giving and taking away, the ultimate arbiter.
I oscillated between being Lung's biggest cheerleader to wishing he would just drop dead already. The latter feeling is probably self-righteousness on my part—I can't say I wouldn't become just as superficial and self-interested if my coffers were suddenly flooded. Despite disliking him, I admire how real Lung seemed, perhaps because of how clearly we do see his unsavory traits.
Another strong aspect of this book is Buck's willingness to face the hard realities of famine dead-on. If you choose to read it, know that you're in for references to infanticide and cannibalism. None is particularly gruesome, but I can see how these topics wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.
Outside of the content of the story, I kept coming back to its origins. Born in West Virginia, Pearl S. Buck spent a significant portion of her life in China with her missionary parents. A white woman, she continued to think in Chinese well into her English-speaking adult life. In an interesting parallel, I was having similar thoughts while recently reading A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois. (Review will come whenever I get around to it.) The book tackles Russian politics from the 1980s to the late '00s, and, as far as I can tell, the author has never been to Russia and doesn't have particular ties to the country. This got me thinking about what makes a person "qualified" to write about a certain country or culture. Do you really have to be qualified? I'm of a few minds on this one, so I'd love to hear what you guys think.
There are other parts of this book that definitely warrant more extensive discussion, but this review has taken me long enough. Overall, I enjoyed The Good Earth, but it won't be joining my 'favorites' list.
Have any of you read The Good Earth? What did you think about it? Do you think there are certain things that make writers "qualified" to write about certain topics/places?