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!
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 Fan, and 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.
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?