At the end of Pearl of China the author, Anchee Min, writes a short note to the reader about her inspiration for writing this book, a fictionalized account of the life of Pearl Buck in China, as seen through the eyes of her (fictional) life long best friend Willow Yee.
Min writes that she had never read The Good Earth (Buck's most famous work) and in fact during Buck's bid to return to China with Nixon in 1972, Min (along with other school children) was forced to denounce her. While Min was giving a reading of her memoir Red Azalea at a book store, a woman stepped up to her and asked if she had ever read The Good Earth. Min replied no and the woman handed her a copy of the book as a gift. While doing so she told Min that The Good Earth taught her to love China.
Min took the book and read it on the flight home, and when she was done she wept. She never imagined that a Western writer could capture the essence of China, especially the peasant class, so beautifully. And then there was that whole denunciation thing. Min resolved to write this novel at that time.
Min tapped exactly on why I have become fascinated with Pearl Buck. She really understood China and its people and was able to write to tell the world and begin to bridge gaps. We underestimate her importance on East West relations. Remember that Nobel prize.
This novel was filled with moments like the one Min experienced herself: regret and longing and friendship and deep abiding love, especially toward the latter half of the book when we see Willow struggling to keep her faith and her dignity in spite of all the horror heaped upon her by the Chinese government. The narrator foreshadows saying good-bye to Pearl for the last time. She kneels at her grave in the US heartbroken that she did not see her friend for the last 37 years of her life. She meets Nixon who brings her greetings from Buck (true?) in the US and you can feel the whole town tense and then admit that they know and love Pearl. All these moments had me reaching for my box of tissues. I loved this fictional story for that reason.
I was struck by how much Min's style of writing copied Buck's style. They write in short sentences that move the plot forward quickly. There are heros and there are villains and there exists no subtlety in any of the characters. I was surprised to note that in Min's story the missionary work of Pearl's father, Absolom Sydenstrecker, was regarded as heroic. In fact, all the characters who converted to Christianity were heroic. The Christian conversion narrative was so thick and annoying that it could easily be mistaken for a Christian tract. While I find reading about missionaries in China interesting, I think there are always downsides and upsides and Min seems to really push a Christian agenda.
This small part aside, I loved Pearl of China. Because so much of the plot revolved around historical evidence, I am eager to turn now to some history books and biographies to see what of this volume happened and what was an invention of the author.
By the way, as my title indicates, I don't think I can send this one to Catherine. It is not very nice about Chairman Mao and Anchee Min's books all appear on the banned list.