The Good Earth

The Good EarthHas the Little Library movement taken over your neighborhood? I always thought this was a terrific idea, but now there are so many of these boxes on each block in my neighborhood that I feel adding one more of my own would be overkill. Still, when I take walks, I peek in each one to see what interesting books might be waiting (never mind that I have a TBR pile from hell at home), and sometimes find something too intriguing to pass by. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was one of those.

Before I started reading, I knew that Buck was an American grew up in China and so her novels are often (if not exclusively?) set there. The Good Earth tells the story of the poor peasant farmer Wang Lung’s life, starting from his marriage to the selfless and hardworking O-lan to his old age as a prosperous landowner leaving a legacy of  wealth and status to his children and grandchildren. Wang Lung’s life and prosperity are intimately connected to the land he farms and its life-giving bounty of food (which can translate into coin), hence the title of the book. The land, the earth itself, is grounding and centering for Wang Lung. When he works it and values it, he is whole and rewarded. When he doesn’t, he is corrupted and weak.

It is always interesting when a person of one culture/ethnic background writes from within the point of view of another as I think Buck has at least tried to do and is often attributed as having done (I keep seeing mentions of Goodreads of how this is a Chinese novel). Some people might argue that ethnicity and cultural perspective is irrelevant in storytelling; one’s imagination and a good bit of research can inform perspective, and besides there is so much that is universal in the human experience. Besides, Buck grew up in China and spoke Chinese so she undoubtedly had an insider perspective on Chinese culture and traditional values, if not a certain ethnic identity of Chineseness of her own. Still, I couldn’t help feel that novel’s action was deeply influenced by a very Christian, and therefore non-Chinese, value system and it was no surprise to me that googling revealed that her parents were missionaries.

As I read, I kept thinking of the Christian idea of sin and punishment. The “good earth” values the novel seems to espouse are Christian ones–hard work,  the sanctity of marriage, kindness, and humbleness. When Wang Lung suffers, it is because he has violated these values, almost like he has violated God’s will and he has sinned. When he envies the rich Hwang clan and their landholdings, a period of fallow and famine drive him and his family into starvation and exile to the city to find work and food. In various chapters, Wang Lung displays pride (in his land, sons, wealth), wrath (on the Hwangs and his mooching, bandit cousin), lust (for Lotus Flower), envy (of the Hwangs), sloth (stops working the fields), and therefore brings setbacks, suffering, and loss upon himself and his family. Maybe these are Chinese themes, maybe universal ones, but certainly they are Christian ones.

While I was fascinated by these observances as I read — and I found the storytelling and writing lucid and proficient — I am not sure that I entirely enjoyed the book. It was too Christian for me, too missionary, too value-laden, too Orientalist.

Now I am off for a walk to return it to a Tiny Library somewhere along my route in hopes that someone will enjoy it a bit more than me.

tiny library borrowed copy
First published 1931
Washington Square Press publication 2004

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