A Window into early 1900 China,
This review is from: The Good Earth (Oprah's Book Club) (Paperback)THE GOOD EARTH, Pearl Buck, Washington Sq. Press, 1931, pp357
This novel should be read before SONS which is a continuation of The Good Earth. Pearl lived in China a great deal of her life and what she writes in her novels reveals much about Chinese life in the early 1900's. This novel is about Wang Lung, a very poor farmer who ekes out a living from his meagre land which barely sustains him and his father. He is about to be married.
His life is arduous and totally dependent on what he produces from the land. He represents the utterly poor of China and through Pearl's first-hand knowledge, we get glimpses of how gruesome life must have been. The story centres around Wang and his children as they grow up and the father's hopes for each. He recognizes and values that it is the land which sustains them, and he continues to buy any available. Unfortunately, as he gains in wealth, he and the children lose sight of the source of this wealth and the further removed from the land they become, the more serious the consequences: 'Land is one's flesh and blood.' (p. 52)
Even if one loves the land however, one is subject to the whims of nature and man's interference. So we experience such hardships as backbreaking work and hours, storms, floods, drought, grasshoppers and wars. The good years and harvests are rewarding but the hardships mean life and death. Pearl doesn't invent these hardships ' millions of Chinese starved to death and millions more died due to robbers, lords of war and rebellions. She alludes to most of these.
Wang's first love is the land but as they age, the children distract him away. We get glimpses of the rich man's life, his servants, his way of life and his abundant choice foods. In opposition, we are constantly reminded that the majority in China are destitute just barely surviving while these greedy selfish men refuse to share. His children, his eventual yielding to the flesh and his pride lead to his downfall. He is never to find the peace he so desires in old age until: 'But still one thing remained to him and it was his love for his land. He had gone away from it....But his roots were in his land and although he forgot it many months....still he must needs go and he went.' (p. 353)
The Good Earth is a real life human tragedy and it is not a book one puts down easily as it unfolds. His devotion to his children, his kindness to his wife whom he did not love and replaced with another, his disappointments with their lives and especially that not one will carry on his legacy with the land, his daughter the Fool, all these events could occur in any household and the outcomes could be the same depending if we chose the path Wang did.
The detail Pearl provides about the impoverished and the wealthy Chinese could only be grasped by one with such intimate first- hand knowledge. Typically, she also includes a handicapped child based again on her own daughter's life.
This is a classic and in many secondary schools, it is required reading. The insights into the Chinese way of life are abundant and the human experiences are lessons for anyone in any place and time.