October 8, 2006
The Good Earth
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Finished on 9/18/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very good)
The sun beat down upon them, for it was early summer, and her face was soon dripping with her sweat. Wang Lung had his coat off and his back bare, but she worked with her thin garment covering her shoulders and it grew wet and clung to her like skin. Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together – together – producing the fruit of this earth – speechless in their movement together.
It's been over two weeks since I finished this wonderful novel. I'm not sure why I've put off writing my review, especially since I enjoyed the read so well. I think it may have something to do with the simplicity of the narrative. I'm not sure what I can say about it that would entice another reader. Unlike Brave New World, which was so complex and multilayered, Buck's Pulitzer Prize winner (1932) is a fairly simple story about a simple Chinese peasant, scratching out a meager existence for himself and his family. It's a classic case of man vs. nature; an examination of the human condition; an epic story of one man’s life. A proud, honest, hardworking (and sometimes stubborn) man who tends to his small plot, slowly (and wisely) acquiring more and more land, ultimately rising to the status of a wealthy landowner with thousands of acres that he eventually rents out in his old age.
Buck is a skillful artist when it comes to drawing her main characters. Wang Lung and O-lan come to life, pulling the reader into their lives and struggles, occasionally with a gentle tug at one’s heartstrings. On the other hand, the remaining cast is nothing but a outline sketch of family members and neighbors. I didn’t care for any of them. I never felt like I knew them.
It didn’t take me long to start caring about Wang Lung and O-lan, silently applauding their good fortune while muttering under my breath when life to a turn for the worst. I liked Wang Lung. He worked hard and was honest, refusing to join his family when they were reduced to begging and thieving in order to survive. He had a great respect for his elders and strong sense of family loyalty. However, when he brought a second wife home, I lost some respect even though I know it was part of his cultural make-up. Even he seemed ashamed of his actions, which made me think he was behaving in a heartlessly selfish manner. He may have bought O-lan when she was a young slave, but I believe he came to love and admire her for her resourcefulness, independence and silent, yet proud, role as his wife.
A simple story? Maybe. Maybe not. There weren’t any car chases. No aliens. No futuristic technologies. No cute little anecdotes about dogs or children. But there were marauding bandits, concubines, an abundance of opium, floods, drought, locust plagues, war and death. As I read I found myself thinking about another couple from the great epic tale Giants in the Earth. Rolvaag’s Norwegian immigrants Per Hansa and Beret struggled with the challenges of living off the land, the constant battle between man and nature, very much like Wang and O-lan. More than once, I found myself thinking, "Thank goodness I was born when and where I was." I can't begin to imagine surviving such hardships simply to stay alive, feeding one's family, sheltering it from the harsh elements, all the while keeping one's sanity in the midst of extreme isolation. I'm thankful for indoor plumbing, modern medicine, plentiful food supplies, technology that allows me to keep in touch with friends and family, near and far. I'm afraid I would’ve been a terrible pioneer or peasant. I'm too fond of my creature comforts!