Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A classic!

It seems funny to review a classic.  After all, many many people before me clearly thought pretty highly of this book or it would not be a classic.  Instead, I will tell you about a favorite character and a scene that made me cry, and tell you why you might want to read the tale of life in pre-revolutionary China called The Good Earth.  

Pearl S. Buck, who was raised in China and spoke English and Chinese, tells an epic story of the rise and fall and rise of the family of Wang Lung.  It felt a little like The Grapes of Wrath meets Dynasty.  When it was published in 1931 it made every best seller list and won every award.  Eventually Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize in literature--the first woman to do so--for her body of work which increased understanding and awareness between East and West.  One of the notable things about the book, reports Oprah Winfrey's book club website, is that it was the first English language book to portray childbirth so realistically.  No one had read about birthin' babies before The Good Earth.

Buck was unsentimental about the fact that day to day life in China simply saw women as objects to be bought and sold. They were either sold as slaves so that families could have money or they were sent away at young ages to live in their future husband's homes rarely to be seen again.  All of it was sad and heartbreaking to me, but part of normal life in China which Buck portrays elegantly and simply.  

One of the main characters is O-lan who was sold into slavery when she was 10 so her parents could eat.  Wang Lung the farmer wants a wife, but is poor so he makes a deal with the House of Hwang and for a few pieces of silver takes home O-lan as his bride.  O-lan turns out to be a rock star.  She cooks and cleans and stands by him and works the land and most importantly bears him sons. Not just one son, but three sons.  She does not speak much and Wang Lung speaks a lot about her lack of beauty and her BIG FEET, but she is very smart and of course there are those sons.

O-lan saves the day many times. She always knows what to do, and she is faithful and loyal and understands her place.  The only thing she ever asks for is a pair of pearls from a cache of treasure that she finds in a rich person's house.  The rest of the treasure she gives to her husband so that he can buy more land. She takes those pearls and she wraps them up and keeps them in her bosom.  They represent a lot to O-lan.  They represent her freedom (she is not a slave any more).  They are a thing of beauty and value and the remind her of her value.  Those pearls, tucked away in her bosom, give her much hope and as a reader, you really can picture those perfect pearls and how special they are.

As Wang Lung's fortunes increase, he is not very content with his plain wife anymore so he goes in search of a perfect petite woman who he can have as his second wife.  The more he woos the second wife the more he grows unhappy with O-lan and even though he feels bad, he can't help himself but to be rude and callous toward the woman who helped him build his empire.  The final act of cruelty toward the wise and faithful O-lan was to demand her pearls and give them to his new concubine.  O-lan protests because she would like to give them to her daughter on her wedding day, but that just makes Wang Lung mad and he takes them anyway. Those pearls. Traveling from the quiet nest of O-lans breasts to the earlobes of his concubine make quite a picture.

As time goes on, O-lan becomes very ill and dies and after all the years and all the sons and all the duty Wang Lung is forced to recognize what a fabulous wife he had:

But when the Earth was covered over and the graves smoothed, he turned away silently and he sent away the chair and he walked home alone with himself.  And out of his heaviness there stood out strangely but one clear thought and it was a pain to him, and it was this, that he wished he had not taken the two pearls from O-lan that day when she was washing his clothes at the pool, and he would never bear to see Lotus put them in her ears again.  

Thus thinking heavily, he went on alone and said to himself, "There in that land of mine is buried the first good half of my life and more.  It is as though half of me were buried there and now it is a different life in my house."

And suddenly he wept a little, and he dried his eyes with the back of his hand as a child does.

--From The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

I found this passage to be so beautiful and so poignant and exactly why this book has existed for so long.     Buck made her main character to be perfectly reflecting of the times, but he was a dynamic character and the reader weeps along with him as he realizes how he failed.  Those pearls come out of hiding and they represent so much that was Wang Lung and O-lan's relationship.

The first few chapters of this book also reminded me a lot of the Little House on the Prairie books I read as a girl.  (Well maybe a PG version.)   Buck goes into a lot of detail about what life is like in the earthen house for a poor farmer and his wife which I found interesting in the same way Little House was interesting. This saga of pre-revolutionary China was very readable and enjoyable.

So this summer at the beach go ahead and skip over the latest from Jody Picoult and pick up this heartbreaking story of a place from long ago and far away.

Also, I am interested in the new book by Anchee Min who writes a work of historical fiction based on the childhood of Pearl Buck.  If you have it out from the library, please hurry and finish it so I can read it.  I am next on the list.

Ever been to her birthplace in West Virginia?  I would be interested in knowing if that is worth visiting as well.

Happy reading!

No comments: