Mo Money, Mo Problems: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

February 4, 2013 Asia, Classics, Family, Historical Fiction, Pretentious, Women's Studies 36

Happy Monday, Bookworms!

This weekend I took a trip to China… Sort of. Remember way back when I started this blog I read a novel loosely based on the life of Pearl S. Buck? No? Allow me to refresh your memory. After reading Pearl of China by Anchee Min, I was inspired to read me some Pearl S. Buck.

The Good Earth (in conjunction with some of Buck’s other work) won a friggin Nobel Prize, so there must be something to it, right? I must admit, I’m not always a huge fan of full on high brow literary fiction, and the fact that this had won a Nobel Prize made me a wee bit nervous. It frustrates me when a novel has spectacular language but lacks the umph of killer storytelling. I like a good story. If I only wanted pretty language, I’d read more poetry. I am every literary critic’s nightmare. And yet I continue blathering all over the internet. Muahahahahaha!

the good earth

Back to the book. Wang Lung is a poor peasant farmer whose only option for marriage is a slave from an opulent household. Chinese culture is beautiful in many ways, but it’s downright hideous when it comes to the treatment women. I’ve discussed foot binding a bit in the past, when I reviewed Snow Flower and the Secret Fanand it plays into this book as well. Wang Lung’s bride, the slave girl O-Lan does NOT have her feet bound. Why would she? She wasn’t a lady of means and leisure, she was a woman required to work long, hard hours. Hard to spend a day on your feet when your feet have been broken and are weird little 3 inch stumps, yo.

Fortunately, O-Lan is a sturdy woman used to hard work. She helps Wang Lung with the farm work and does all her wifely chores. She also produces SONS. That’s a HUGE deal because the sons in China stayed with their families. Girls, once they’re married, are taken into their husbands’ families. The prevailing opinion at this time in China was that girls are an expensive burden. If a family found itself in abject poverty, sometimes they’d sell off a daughter to get by. Full on slavery.  That’s how O-Lan ended up in her position. Moral of the story #1: It blows HARD to be a lady in China.

Wang Lung and O-lan have some good times on the farm. It’s prosperous and they have sons. What more could they want? You know what more they could want? Food. A year of terrible weather renders growing food impossible. The whole village starves. Some sell their daughters. Some raid their neighbors’ food stores. Some resort to cannibalism. Some just wither away and die. Wang Lung’s family is little more than skin and bones when they decide to leave their beloved land and head south. Moral of the story #2: Famine is a bitch.

When they reach the south, the family finds a charity kitchen that will feed them, so their most pressing problem is solved. Eventually, Wang Lung gets a hankering to get back to his land, but since they’ve been making their living by begging and pulling a rickshaw, they’re not in a position to buy train fare. Thank goodness for political unrest. When the city they’re squatting in gives over to riot, Wang Lung and O-lan get lucky in a mob raid. Wang Lung manages to frighten a rich man into giving him a purse full of gold, and O-lan absconds with a sack of jewels.

image courtesy of Wikipedia

image courtesy of Wikipedia

Moral of the story #3: “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” (Yep. I just referenced the Notorious B.I.G. in a post about Nobel Prize winning literature. I am just that awesome.) Wang Lung and O-Lan were at the mercy of the elements as farmers, it’s true. But add some money to the mix and life gets awfully complicated. Not much is expected of peasant farmers, but there’s a whole different set of rules for wealthy landowners. The remainder of the book follows the family’s journey through the complex world of Chinese social climbing.

As I said earlier, I dug this book. It’s said that Buck’s fiction was among the first to resonate with both Chinese and western audiences because although Buck was an American, she lived in China for much of her early life. She wrote about Chinese society in a way that no western writer ever had, because she understood the Chinese way of life from a native’s perspective. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about China and Chinese immigrants to the US, but this felt super authentic. Like… Taco Bell vs. authentic Mexican food. I love me some nachos supreme, but I know what’s authentic and what isn’t, you know? Even the language in which its written is very matter of fact. It’s not flowery. It doesn’t go into detail about feelings, but you feel them anyway. That’s probably part of the reason Buck’s work has stood the test of time. Awesomeness, honesty, and authenticity. Let’s give Pearl a little slow clap, shall we?

So, Bookworms. Some food for thought. If you won the lottery tomorrow, how do you think your life would change?

36 Responses to “Mo Money, Mo Problems: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck”

  1. Rhian

    If I won the lottery tomorrow I would quit work so I could spend that time reading awesome books.

    Okay well maybe I wouldn’t spend *all* the time I’m currently at work reading. I would do some more volunteering like at the science museum, and helping people learn to read.

    Oh and I would travel and do like a tour of libraries of the world.

    You can tell I have given this some thought already 😀

  2. Megan M.

    If I won the lottery tomorrow I would get my pre-baby body back… or as close to it as I could get, because I could pay someone to cook me healthy food and force me to exercise. In other words, I could buy myself some discipline.

  3. Too Fond

    I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while, so glad to hear you liked it! If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would 1. quit my job and 2. buy a house in the mountains. Otherwise I don’t think I’d change much.

  4. didibooksenglish

    I love you went off slightly on the Nachos Supreme. Love me some Nachos supreme too. As for Pearl Buck, she’s always been on my TBR and I haven’t gotten around to it yet. This is just a good reminder for later. Thanks!

  5. didibooksenglish

    Oh yeah if a won the lottery I’d open a cool used English bookshop in my town with a coffee/tea shop and spend my time reading good books. I’d also buy an apartment in Paris and another bigger house and get rid of the one we’re in.

  6. Charleen

    “I like a good story. If I only wanted pretty language, I’d read more poetry.”

    This is brilliant. I’d never thought of it this way before, but yes. I mean, I’m appreciative of good stories that ALSO are well-written, but I just can’t get into a book where the literariness (yup, I’m sticking with that) is ALL it has going for it. Thank you for putting it so succinctly.

    If I won the lottery, I’d pay off all my debt and go to grad school. If I won the mega-never-need-to-work-again lottery, I’d stay in school forever. (And take awesome vacations between semesters.)

    • Words for Worms

      I’m so relieved someone feels like I do about the super duper lit fic! I was afraid I’d be banned from bookworm-dom forever. That sounds like a wonderful way to spend your lotto winnings!

  7. Lyssapants

    If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t want my life to change very much at all.
    I’d work less (but I would still work because I love it) and I would have nicer things and I would travel more. Oh, and food. Noms.

  8. Melissa

    I love this book too! I read it quite a few years ago but still remember lots of the details. To me that’s a sign of a book that really impacted me because I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday! Anyway, I think if I won the lottery I would give a set sum to my parents and my inlaws and let them decide how to split it up among the extended family. Take the pressure and guilt off our shoulders and onto theirs 🙂 After giving a generous amt to our church and saving a little for our kids education I would use what’s left to travel.

  9. therelentlessreader

    Fantastic book, fantastic review. If I haven’t told you this already you make me totally snort laugh. 😉

  10. RebeccaScaglione - Love at First Book

    I loooooved this book. I read it a few years ago on a recommendation by a friend and I think it started my love of reading about Asian culture. It’s just so fascinating to me since it’s so different (the older culture) than my current life. Have you read anything by Lisa See? She’s part Chinese and writes some awesome fiction about Chinese culture like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

    • Words for Worms

      Oh yeah, I’m all up on my Lisa See. Actually, I believe I put a little linky poo to Snow Flower in this post if you check out the foot binding bit. I love her fiction (non fiction, not so much.) Amy Tan too. Amy Tan can make foods that should be repulsive sound delicious.

        • Words for Worms

          I’m sure it doesn’t help that my theme doesn’t make the links look super obvious either. How do you like Bloglovin? Does it help keep things all organized and such?

          • RebeccaScaglione - Love at First Book

            I love Bloglovin. I can divide my blogs into categories and it’s very easy to go from one to the next. I’m just not used to it on the iPad but I love it on the computer. I had too much to keep track of before but Bloglovin makes it easy for me.

            They have an interior “frame” where you can easily check your blog posts instead of opening a new window each time. That might sound confusing, I might not be explaining it right, but I think it’s a good way to manage the blogs I follow.

  11. roshniaamom

    I love The Good Earth. I read it in my teens. I feel bad that I lost my own copy, bought in a secondhand book store in my home city! Ah well!

  12. Rick Wiedeman

    It wouldn’t, radically. I’d get a nicer house and car and take nicer vacations. I’d still work, still live in the same town, still hang with the same people. I’m happy. 🙂

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