Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck

Summary: A poignant tale about the life and labors of a Chinese farmer during the sweeping reign of the country's last emperor.  (Summary from - Image from )

My Review:  I’ve been in what I would call an “intellectual reading” slump lately, as is evidenced by the startling amount of children’s and YA fiction that has been posting the last several months.  If you missed the post a few days ago,   I am dealing with some pretty brutal morning sickness (along with a few other reviewers), and now the flu, and I find it difficult to work up the motivation to move around and, say, feed my children, let alone type something coherent and respectable.   

Recently (and by “recently” I mean several years ago) a good friend recommended one of her favorite classics, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  I picked up a copy immediately, set in on my to-read shelf, and there it has sat languishing, hoping that I would finally get up the nerve to read a classic, because -- let's face it -- sometimes they are really boring.  The other day, in a fit of I-must-read-something-grown-up-if-it-kills-me, I began reading it, and instantly knew that I had found something worth writing about – something that overcame both my nausea, exhaustion, and my fear of classics, and transported me to an entirely different time and place. 

The Good Earth is an undeniable classic, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a brilliant work of literary fiction.  It tells the story of Wang Lung, a simple farmer, and his newly acquired wife O-lan as they struggle to scratch out a meager existence on the land where he was born.  As time passes, Wang Lung, his wife, and children are forced to flee south to avoid crushing famine, and beg for handouts in a sprawling city.  But always Wang Lung yearns to return to the land, that he believes is the source of all life, wealth, and happiness. As characters, Wang Lung and O-lan are beautifully written.  I was torn between respect, annoyance, and pity for Wang Lung, while his wife earned my undying devotion with her loyalty and patience.  I didn’t always agree with the decisions that either of them made, but couldn’t help but be touched by their devotion to the land.

On a broader scale, The Good Earth gives a stunningly realistic depiction of pre-revolutionary farm and family life in China, and a sweeping view of the culture and the political, social, and economic climate during the reign of China’s last emperor.  Most of these aspects were absorbing, but I struggled with the more “sexist” aspects of this story, such as the use of the term “slave” and other ideals that reflected the diminished, and even proprietary, status of women in China.  This perception of women was evident, and frequently appauling, but eventually I was able to remind myself that life was like that back then, and not get (too) angry at what I saw as a horribly unfair.     

Perceived injustices aside, this book is captivating. One chapter at a time was simply not enough.  I read it for pure enjoyment, but it could certainly be analyzed for deeper meaning and themes and would be a fabulous book club selection.  It’s everything that I love in literature – richly detailed, purposeful, authentic, and beautifully written – but it’s not a book that everyone will love.  Readers who are only satisfied with a fast-pace thriller, adventure, or romance, will probably want to look elsewhere.  The Good Earth is measured and deliberate; it takes its time, but with such meaning and imagery that it is worth every minute of yours.
My Rating: 5 Stars.  (I tossed around the idea of a 4.5, because of all the annoying “slave” talk, but in the end I couldn’t fault the book for historical and ideological accuracy).

For the sensitive reader: Some sexuality, but honestly most of it was so vague I wasn’t always sure what was going on. No language that I can recall but there is some violence and tough situations encountered because of extreme poverty.

Summary:  A riveting story of loyalty, betrayal, land, lust, family, greed, and honor and a compelling glimpse into a Chinese culture and history.


brokenteepee said...

I read these books over thirty years ago and they are indeed excellent.

I hope you feel better

Kari said...

I read this book in high school and had a love/hate relationship with it as well. I could NOT put it down, but the sexism and abuse was about all I could stand without throwing it. Your review was spot on Mindy!

Leslie said...

Thanks Mindy! This is one of my favorite books also. I listened to it on CD, and one day I got so angry with Wang Lung that I wanted to throw the CD and not finish the book!

Then I decided that any book that could elicite that kind of emotion was worth finishing, so I did and I'm glad.

You might also like East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck. That is a quicker read, very enjoyable though.


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