Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Book Review: The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck

I have meant to write an entry about this book ever since my book club met about it a couple of weeks ago. If you haven't read it, do. Add it to your summer reading list now. It's definitely worth the time to read this novel. It's been around for a long time. Pearl Buck wrote The Good Earth back in the early 1930's and won the Pulitzer for it in 1932. It's a timeless classic. It takes place in China during the time of the last emperor. The main character is named Wang Lung, and he is a farmer. Initially, a poor farmer. He marries, sight unseen, a slave from the big house named O-Lan. He is very industrious and very tied to his land. O-Lan is unusually quiet and stoic, but wise. She rarely speaks, but when she does her words have insight and meaning. They work the land together. They see good times and hard times.

The book lent me insights into the Chinese culture that I didn't have before reading it. It talked of childbirth and child bearing. There was a concubine and opium addiction. Greed. Success. Moral decline. Remorse. It had all of it. It even had a heart-wrenching scene where the family - the whole region - was suffering an extreme drought and everyone was starving. Literally starving. O-Lan was pregnant with her 4th baby during this famine, and gave birth under these excruicating conditions. The older children were reduced to crawling they had no strength. O-Lan always choose to give birth completely alone and silently. Wang Lung is listening for the sounds of the baby's cries. He hears a faint, weak cry and then silence. He had been thinking (wishing?) that there would be no cry. That it would be merciful if the baby didn't survive. After hearing the cries he goes in to see O-Lan and the baby. She tells him the baby, "just a little slave" (meaning girl), is dead. She is stoic. He is crushed by the news and tends to the child, where he sees two bruises on her neck. The book does not go into detail beyond this, but it is enough to deliver the message that O-Lan killed the child to spare her rather than see her suffer. There was no food. She probably wouldn't have survived anyway. It was tough to read, and even harder to imagine doing such an act, but even harder still to realize that she was probably right to do what she did.

The book spans a lifetime. It chronicles how people handle all extremes in life: deperate poverty and unimaginable wealth. It was interesting to note what moral lapses, according to our society, were willing to be overlooked and which ones weren't. It had all types of family relationships and the yoke that some family members become. It even touches on mental disability. One of Wang Lung and O-Lan's children - the eldest girl - was retarded in some way. She is simply known as "The Fool". Pearl Buck, the author, also had a mentally challenged child.

In our book club discussion it was interesting to listen to the women discuss the polygamy theme. In the book, Wang Lung takes a concubine. We talked about how many cultures in the world practice polygamy. Many African tribes practice polygamy. There is a Mormon sect, albeit extreme, that practices it today (one of the book club members grew up in Utah and witnessed quite a bit of it in her childhood, but never in her own family). We joked about how, in many respects, having several wives makes a lot of sense. Wouldn't it be sort of easier to have a female companion to help out with the house and kids? And they could share the load in the bedroom department when the other one just wants to get some sleep? I think it's safe to say that most American women might agree with those theories on paper but could never imagine putting them into practice. But think about it - it does have some appeal if you can get past your own issues about how to define a marriage. To me, I think Carol Brady had the most ideal arrangement: she was a SAHM yet had Alice to help with everything and offer companionship, but she didn't have to share Mike in the bedroom. PERFECT!

So go to the library or bookstore and pick up a copy of The Good Earth. I think you'll enjoy the read. Next book: Empire Falls.

Someone just have me this book today to read. I am at work, but snuck in the first couple of pages already. Cannot wait until the little ones are all tucked in tonight so I can get started.
I hope you enjoy the book! I did. It wasn't something I would have normally picked up to read (that's why I like being in a book club), but I liked it very much. I just finished the next book club book, Empire Falls, and will be writing a review post on that one as well. Also very recommended!
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