Published in 1931, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel from American writer Pearl S. Buck (1892 – 1973) dramatises Chinese family life shortly before the outbreak of World War I. This was the first book in her House of Earth trilogy and examines the life of simple farmer Wang Lung, who is shortly to be married to former slave woman O-Lan. The novel then follows the growing family through struggle and strife as they attempt to survive poverty, war, and the demands of globalisation.
Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, largely due to her efforts with this rather magnificent novel. A bestseller back in its day, it had a far reaching social influence which included shifting American attitudes during WWII towards considering the Chinese as allies. The novel has had a resurgence of late, too, when in 2004 Oprah Winfrey recommended it in her Book Club thing, which launched it back into the limelight. Today, we’re doing much the same, but without an overly excitable live audience in the background.
The Good Earth
The historical fiction novel (adapted into a film in 1937), it tells the story of Wang Lung, a hard working and poor farmer. The House of Hwang, local wealthy land owners, provide him with a wife in the form of O-Lan who is, essentially, a slave. Her duty is to be a doting wife to Lung – bear him children, cook, farm the land etc. However, she proves herself (despite locals believing her to be stupid) to be cunning, skilled, and stoic.
As O-Lan provides two sons to her husband, Lung is initially prosperous and pretty exultant, although his malevolent uncle and miserly father are the bane of his existence. This is until famine arrives, which places the family under colossal strain as abject poverty arrives forcing them into a desperate move. The family must risk everything with a trip to the big city, where a new way of life awaits.
That’s the synopsis! Buck wrote the novel circa 1929 when she was at university in Nanjing. Her writing style is coolly observant – she describes events impartially, almost with an indifferent tone of voice. This works perfectly with the story, as she is detailing a moment in history – one family’s trials and tribulations.
It’s similar, in some respects, to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (minus all the fantastical stuff from that novel) in how it details the adventures of an entire family. Buck’s work stands on its own as a masterful piece of writing, though, and one which every literary fan should give a go. After this, if you’re interested, there are two others to enjoy from what is a trilogy – Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935).
Pearl S. Buck
Also known by her Chinese name Sai Zhenzhu, she was the daughter of missionaries and spent the first half of her life in Zhenjiang (eastern China). As such, the Good Earth wasn’t thrown together by someone who’d read a load of history books – she was actively in amongst the community and could see peasant Chinese life first hand. For her efforts, she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize.
In later life, she moved to America and began promoting feminism, the rights of minority groups, and other social and economic issues of her era (in other words, she was a trailblazing humanitarian). Her lasting literary legacy is clearly strong, as her elegant writing style lends itself well to modern audiences.
Where many modern fiction books have titles such as the Little Boy Sitting By The Pond Eating Strawberries, and are crammed full of sentiment and whimsy, Buck was gritty and realistic, detailing the beautiful simplicity of existence through a magnanimous style and natural skill for prose.