I know I’ll not be able to do justice to a classic such as The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. I should not even attempt. But, I cannot keep myself from trying. So, here goes –
More than 7 decades ago, this book won the Pulitzer Prize and then, helped Pearl S Buck win the Nobel Prize. The Good Earth reads like a song of the war, of china, of farmers (not peasants), of women and men, of marriage, of poverty and riches and, of birth and death.
This, in a sense, is a rag to riches story of a farmer family. The book begins on the wedding day of Wang Lang, a poor Chinese farmer that lives with his old father – with O-Lan, a slave girl at the great house that he buys for himself. O-Lan is talented on many fronts – she is a good cook, clever at mending and stitching clothes. She is a hard worker on the farm and helps Wang Lang with the all the work and takes care of the home bringing a new life to the household in the figurative sense as well as, in the literal sense. O-Lan brings good fortune to the family. Wang Lang with the help of O-Lan reaps great harvests and even buys land from the Great House. O-Lan gives birth to two boys and then a couple of girls.
Drought strikes when the last girl is born and O-Lan kills her at birth and, Wang Lang leaves her out where a hungry dog watches knowing, it would eat her. They starve for many days and finally the family sells everything other than the land and move to a city in the south. The descriptions of sights, sounds and smells of a city with abundance in food and riches from the eyes of starved rural people works like magic. O-Lan teaches the children to how beg while Wang Lang pulls a rickshaw. They survive on the charitable one-cent meal of rice gruel.
When a food riot erupts, a mob breaks into a house of a rich man. Wang Lang and O-Lan steal the riches along with the mob. Then, they return to their land and Wang Lang buys an ox and other tools. He also hires people to work on his land. Good times return to the house hold with the birth of another son and a daughter. Wang Lang buys more land from the great house of Hwangs. He also sends his sons to schools when he realizes he is rich enough and his sons need not work on the land anymore. He takes a concubine – Lotus and becomes obsessed by her. Watering the land and smelling the earth help him come out of it. His elder son gets married and O-Lan dies. The second son also gets married and they move to the town. The youngest son runs away to become a soldier. At the end of the book, the two elder sons contemplate selling the land and Wang Lang is broken at the thought.
O-Lan is the real hero of the book and she has a major part to play in the well being of the family in good times and bad. Her strength and knowledge help the family survive in bad times and proper in good times.
The feminism in the book is complex. There are various deceptions of Chinese women in this era. There are references to wife buying, female infanticide and foot binding among other things. When Wang Lang’s marital life is to begin, his father tells him:
“And what will we do with a pretty woman? We must have a woman who will tend the house and bear children as she works in the fields. A pretty woman will be forever thinking about clothes to go with her pretty face!”
When female children are born into the family, they are considered “not worth mentioning” and Wang Lang considers that the time of misfortune has started for him. O-Lan is back to the field helping Wang Lang with the work hours after she gives birth. In order to ward off evil spirits from their firstborn son, O-Lan and Wang Lung pretend thus:
“What a pity our child is a female whom no one could want and covered with smallpox as well! Let us pray it may die.”
The role of earth in the life of Wang Lang becomes clear soon after the book begins.
The kitchen was made from earthen bricks as the house was, great squares of earth dug up from their own fields, and thatched with straw from their own wheat. Out of their own earth had his grandfather in his youth fashioned also the oven, baked and black with many years of meal preparing.
When, Wang Lang learns that the house of Hwang’s is growing poor, he does not believe it but when he discoveres they are selling their land, he says:
“Sell their land! Then indeed are they growing poor. Land is one’s flesh and blood.”
When, Wang Lang’s cousin proposes that he sells his land to certain people from the town during the drought when there is no food for anyone to eat, he says
“I shall never sell the land! Bit by bit, I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth.”
This is one of those books that people absolutely love or hate. I belong to the former category. I do not generally re-read books but I have read this one thrice.
Pearl S Buck won the Nobel Prize, as per Nobel Foundation, “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”. However, some would argue, her depiction of China in the book is not entirely authentic. I understand the argument. At the same time, I strongly believe that Pearl S Buck is a brilliant author who did not get her due.
This book review is written and submitted by DS