The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, Or: Jeez This Review is Overdue

March 15, 2015

Last week  Er, in January, I knocked another title off my Classics Club list when I finished The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. As you might have gleaned, it's taken me a while to get a review up because 1) I'm lazy, and 2) I've had a hard time coming up with what I want to say about the book.

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?

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  1. I've been meaning to read this one for YEARS...and finally got the eBook a few months ago when it went on sale. I didn't know that about Buck living in China when she was a youth. Authenticity or qualification is such a difficult topic! I definitely think that living in China puts her closer to the source than the example of the book about Russia. I don't know if one has to be "qualified" to write a really good story...though it might not be as authentic as if a native Chinese person had told the story? Hmmm....I haven't had enough coffee yet this morning. ;)

  2. I have the same struggles as you, and I've already had some coffee. ;)

    On the one hand, I don't think you necessarily have to be from a place to write a compelling story set there, especially if you aren't aiming to educate people about the country itself. On the other, I think there *are* situations where intimate familiarity with a place is important (whether because you're from there or spent a lot of time there), especially when you're writing about more sensitive/charged topics, e.g., race/ethnic group relations. It all depends!

    I hope you enjoy it! And get some coffee! ;)

  3. I haven't read this, but I am a sucker for a cradle-to-grave story! Interesting thoughts re: qualification to write about a certain topic. I think people can write about whatever they want, although as a reader, I will take into account the author's background. Stating the obvious (at least to me) I think it will come across as more meaningful, or reflective, or [I'm blanking on the adjective I'm looking for here]... if the author has first hand experience with their subject matter. Excellent review!

  4. Agreed that a writer shouldn't feel restricted to only writing about places they've been to or things they've experienced! Of course, it does add to the authenticity of your work if you do. :)

    Thanks for the visit! If you're into cradle-to-grave, you might really like this one.

  5. I read this, at a rough guess, around fifty years or more ago. Time for a reread, lol. I laugh, but I do remember enjoying it and it stuck with me for a while. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

  6. Yes, there was a lot to think about and quite well-written! I'm sure you'd enjoy rereading it. :)

  7. I love this book and I try to re-read it every few years. I've never reviewed it, nor do I think I could put into words why I love this book so much. I just do :D I'm sorry it won't be joining your list of favorites but this is why I love this community. We all have such different taste and I think that's awesome.

  8. Amanda @ The Zen LeafMarch 18, 2015 at 4:07 PM

    I admit that I absolutely adore this book. I read it in 2008 and reviewed it early on in my blogging. :)

  9. The copy of The Good Earth I read had a wonderful introduction and some interesting thoughts about her qualifications to write on these subjects. AND PICTURES! So I really enjoyed the learning experience. Mostly it was not at all what I expected. Usually the case for classics - I wonder why I never remember it.

  10. I agree! I love hearing everyone's perspectives, even if I don't personally connect and/or agree with them.

    I'm glad you like it enough to read it over and over again. I find my opinion of a book is influenced so much by timing—maybe if I'd read this book at a different time in my life, I would have liked it more! Perhaps I'll give it another go at some point. :)

  11. Ah, I haven't seen your review! I'll have to go check it out.

    There's quite a lot to enjoy about it, I think, but it just didn't do it for me on the first read. Like I told Jen, maybe I'll give it another try later in life. :)

  12. Ooh, I'd have loved to read that introduction! Do you remember what edition it was?

  13. Darn. It was from the library and USUALLY I am a stickler about recording which edition I read but with a classic there are SO MANY. Apparently I couldn't find it in goodreads and didn't bother to add it. I'm sorry. I have no idea. It think it was from the 70s I think. I really thought I had recorded the info. If you know anyone who lives in Lakeville MA area - go look for it. :D (I moved since then or I really would go look. I would!)

  14. I just did! Love the tags. Also, SO agreed that O-lan is a BAMF.