The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

My grade school copy

One of the things I’ve discovered about myself is that it’s not always a good idea for me to read a new novel when on vacation.  If the novel is really, really good it can get in the way of me getting out and being fully present to experience new things. If I’m at the beach, I usually read ocean or sea-faring related type books that I haven’t read before because part of my day is dedicated to laying on the beach reading.  But for my recent cruise to Alaska, I wanted to experience not only the ports that we’d be visiting, I wanted to spend time with my family and experience the ship as well.

So I decided to take only one novel with me and to choose one that I’d already read.  I did also take a few massage therapy related books, but that’s a different story.  For years now, since I fell in love with Willa Cather, I’ve been thinking about re-reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  In many of Cather’s novel, as in The Good Earth, The Land is the foundation of life and the number one ingredient for living the good life.

I first read The Good Earth in Ms. Lecture’s 7th or 8th grade English class.  That was about 32 years ago.  Wow, how time flies.  What put it in the forefront of my book choices now was the release of Hilary Spurling’s new book Pearl Buck in China.  NPR’s Fresh Air recently featured a great review of Spurling’s book by Maureen Corrigan which you can listen to here.

My younger self enjoyed reading The Good Earth.  My Mom telling me it was one of her favorite novels probably helped spur me on at the time.  My Mom is from Germany and it fascinated me when I was a kid to know that she had read some of the same books in German that I was then beginning to read.

From my first reading I recalled a noble peasant who was a hard-working man who loved the land.  I vividly remembered the opening scene when the son wakes up and gets his father hot water to drink.  I also vaguely remembered a scene of him going to the great house.  Beyond these things I didn’t remember much.

My older self enjoyed reading The Good Earth as well. There certainly were times when I hated to have to put it down or couldn’t wait to get back to it.  There’s a reason the book has been in print since its release in 1931.  Its a grand narrative about the life of Wang Lung, a poor peasant from Anhwei Provence in east-central China.  The opening of the book is Wang’s wedding day and he’s excited that this will be the last day he’ll have to get out of bed, start the fire, and take hot water to his old father.  Tomorrow morning his wife will do all that as well as bring him his own hot water.  I’m sure my younger self thought something like: lame! he has to take his dad hot water every morning???  Why can’t the old man get it for himself???  My “more mature” self can relate to Wang’s desire to lounge in bed and have someone else bring him hot water.

Here’s a brief synopsis:
Wang Lung’s wife is O-lan, a slave from the great house in town, a dynasty which is on the way out due to adult children who think there’s a never ending waterfall of money available for them and the opium addiction of the parents.  To survive, the family has resorted to selling off their land piecemeal.  With the slave-like help of O-lan, Wang Lung works hard on the land, has children (boys and girls, but sons are all that count), and eventually buys more land.  A famine hits and the family is forced to flee to Kiangsu, a big city, to wade out the hardship.  Wang Lung drives a rickshaw while O-lan, the old father, and children beg.  When they are able to return to the land, Wang Lung continues to work hard and buy more land and when the great house in town is overrun by revolt, he comes into some money that gives him the financial push that will allow him to eventually enter the highest economic bracket in the area.  Eventually, however, egos start to collided and Wang Lung’s life isn’t as simple as it used to be.

I’ll stop there at the risk of spoiling anything for those of you who might read the book.  There’s lust, foot binding, greedy and lazy relatives, bandits, infanticide, prostitutes, more opium addiction, dirty soldiers, heart break, and discontented sons.  It’s a beautiful and sometimes painful story to read, but one that will stay with you for a long time if you choose to read it.  And I hope you do.

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