The Bountiful Blessings of the Soil

China is a diverse and vast nation. Beyond its diversity and vastness, it is a nation that is pulsating, full of verve, full of life. It is blessed by nature and throughout its history, these bountiful blessings helped sustain its growing number denizens. Toiled by industrial and hardworking hands, the earth is a source of pride and joy for the ordinary citizen. From the fertile earth blossomed stories – stories of triumphs, of failures, of gain, of losses, of happiness, of sadness.

Springing from the fertile soil is the story of Wang Lung, a young but destitute farmer who is living in an earthen brick house with his father. To accompany his son in his farming, the father arranged for his son to be married with O-lan, a young female slave from the great family of the House of Hwang. Quiet but diligent, O-lan was Wang Fung’s reliable right hand who worked beside him in tilling the fields.

With the birth of their first son, prosperity is the hard earned reward that the young couple is receiving for their industriousness. But just when it seems that everything is flowing smoothly, fate decides to intercede with one of its horrible jokes. Over the horizon, trouble is brewing. How will this young couple, with children in tow survive the storms that are meeting them halfway?

“Now it has been said from ancient times that all women who weep may be divided into three sorts. There are those who lift up their voices and their tears flow and this may be called crying; there are those who utter loud lamentations but whose tears do not flow and this may be called howling; there are those whose tears flow but who utter no sound and this may be called weeping.” ~ Pearl Buck, The Good Earth

Immediately upon publication in 1931, The Good Earth was an instant hit and would go on to be the bestselling novel for two consecutive years. It also won the prestigious 1932 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction award. It was a huge breakthrough for the young writer as it would also be instrumental in landing Buck the even more prestigious 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature.

An American classic, The Good Earth resonates with Buck’s keen observations of the Chinese society. A missionary’s daughter, she spent most of her childhood until her early forties in China. With acuity, she used the knowledge she gained from these observations to conjure a narrative that is brimming with portrayal of the rural peasant Chinese life. Local scenes such as weddings and funerals gave more value to the story, making it stand out  These intricate details give readers an intimate peek Chinese rituals and traditions.

The rough contours of the Chinese rural side provide a credible backdrop to Wang Lung and O-lan’s story. Apart from the rural life, the novel dealt with issues and subjects that are relevant and central not just to Chinese history but to the world in general. Among them are concubinage, civil wars, and polygamy. The patriarchal structure of  Chinese society was finely portrayed in the relationship between Wang Lung,O-lan and their children. The prevalence of corruption was also knitted into the story’s rich tapestry.

“There was always more. Sometimes she lifted her breast and let it flow out upon the ground to save her clothing, and it sank into the earth and made a soft, dark, rich spot in the field. The child fat and good-natured and ate of the inexhaustible life his mother gave him.” ~ Pearl Buck, The Good Earth

Despite being written nine decades ago, The Good Earth remains relevant in today’s society. Buck also exposed social problems that are still topics of discussion in present-day China. Wang Lung’s struggle for social mobility is perhaps the biggest representation of these societal issues. As he toils for his family, he slowly recognizes that having money means little to those around him unless it is used to enhance one’s image through donning opulent clothes and behaving with class.

Wang Lung’s family’s struggles in the big city mirror the experience shared by millions of migrant workers who flocked to China’s growing urban centers to escape the destitution that looms in the countryside. The Chinese farmers are hounded by various challenges such as the dependence on good weather. Moreover, the actions of the government are glaringly lacking. This disparity underlines how little the events in Beijing impact the ordinary Chinese’ life.

The cultural milestones provide a different texture to the story. What also stands out from the narrative is Buck’s natural grace and skill in writing. Despite cultural differences, she was able to make the complicated practices such as feet-binding and selling daughters sound natural. She barely made the readers feel uncomfortable with these, otherwise, discomfiting subjects. Such ability is rare, bringing out the sincerity in the book’s message.

Whilst the book’s intricate details offer a wonderful and insightful reading experience, it was nevertheless hampered by the lack of plot. The rags-to-riches trope is hackneyed and, often times, predictable. Take off the cultural milestones and the novel is reduced to a mundane story. Most of the characters were also bereft of personality and came across as caricatures. Wang Lung, it must be said, is not your typical likeable or relatable character.

“It is the end of a family- when they begin to sell their land. Out of the land we came and into we must go – and if you will hold your land you can live- no one can rob you of land.” ~ Pearl Buck, The Good Earth

Despite being unimpressive in some facets, The Good Earth remains a sweeping story. Its insights on the rural Chinese life and culture makes it stand out. With fascination and acuity, Buck chronicled the changes and struggles that the Chinese people faced during the previous century through one family thriving in the rural countryside. Her graceful and brilliant writing captured the cycle of life, from birth, passions, dreams, rewards, and eventually, death.

With its vivid depictions, The Good Earth reminds one of the most important thing that our generation has slowly forgotten. Our lives, destines, and successes lie with the land. In a manner of speaking, the Earth has been good to us. It is the foundation of life and yet we abuse it. The Good Earth chimes in with this subtle message and reminder

Rating:

75%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Whilst I find the entire structure a little preposterous, and confusing at countless junctures of the story, the cultural value of the novel is undeniable. Buck riveted me with her knowledge and observation of the rural Chinese life, from lotus feet being a symbol of beauty to the entire patriarchal structure of the society in general. It is these cultural details that sustained my interest in the book

The Good Earth relies on its vivid depictions of the rural life and culture more than on the plot. The story is unimpressive without the cultural milestones; the rags-to-riches trope is too predictable and too hackneyed. It didn’t help that most of the characters are caricatures.

Book Specs

Author: Pearl S. Buck
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publishing Date: 2016
Number of Pages: 357 pages
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

In the reign of the last emperor a servant woman married a humble man. Together they began an epic journey…

When O-lan, a servant girl, marries the peasant Wang Lung, she toils tirelessly through four pregnancies for their family’s survival. Reward is meagre, but there is sustenance in the land – until the famine comes. Half-starved, the family joins thousands to beg on the city streets. All seems lost, until O-lan’s desperate will to survive returns them home with the undreamt – of wealth. But they have betrayed the earth from which true wealth springs, and the family’s money breeds only mistrust, deception – and heartbreak for the woman who had saved them.

About the Author

Pearl_Buck(Picture by Wikipedia) Pearl S. Buck was born on June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia to Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, two Southern Presbyterian missionaries who were traveling to China before her birth.

When she was five-months old, Buck’s family moved to China to pursue her parent’s missionary works. It was in China that Buck spent her early childhood, growing up bilingual and with a voracious appetite for reading. In 1911, Buck left China to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Post-college, she worked as Presbyterian missionary, returning to China because of her mother’s illness.

Buck’s first novel, East Wind: West Wind was published in 1930. Whilst filling in her teaching jobs at various universities and colleges in Nanjing, Buck begun writing the manuscript for The Good Earth. It was published in 1931, instantly becoming a bestseller in the United States, a position it would hold for two years. It also won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. In 1935, the novel was republished as a one-volume trilogy entitled House of Earth, with its sequels Sons (1933) and A House Divided (1935).

In a career that spanned more than four decades, Buck wrote several novels, short story collections, biographies, autobiographies and nonfiction pieces. In 1938, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries and for the studies of human ideals which are a great and living art of portraiture, the Swedish Academy feels that it acts in harmony and accord with the aim of Alfred Nobel’s dreams for the future.”

On March 6, 1973, Buck passed away from lung cancer.