Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

# Paperback: 368 pages

# Publisher: Washington Square Press; (September 15, 2004). First published: 1931

Music to listen to as you read: (clicking on the links takes you to the mp3 recording)

Autumn Moon Over a Quiet Lake
(composed in the 1920's by Lu Wencheng)

Slow Liu Ban
(composed by Jiang Nan)

An Dun part 2

With gratitude to Angela in Europe for reading this book with me and for the wonderful discussion that ensued via e-mail. Thanks, Angela, you made the rereading of this book so enjoyable with your fresh perspective and insights.


What can one say, I wonder, about Pearl Buck's immensely popular and well read novel that hasn't already been said? I read "The Good Earth" when I was in Grade 10 and remember it being such a powerful story that when booklogged announced her Classics Challenge, I felt bound to do a re-read. I am not finding it all that powerful this time around which certainly lends credence to the theory that a book speaks differently to you depending upon what
stage of your life you read it in, but it is no less enjoyable and still very,very moving in parts.


The story in a nutshell, centers around Wang Lung, a peasant living in abject poverty in the Chinese north in the early part of the 20th-century. When he reaches a marriageable age, O-Lan, a slave girl from the rich Hwang House is given to him as a bride.Together they toil his land and build a family and with her resourcefulness and his hard labor Wang Lung slowly becomes a prosperous landowner, even buying out the lands once owned by the great Hwang family.

Wang Lung's fortunes change more than once, and as he acquires more wealth you see his priorities start to change - he dresses like a rich man, sends his sons to school (he himself was illiterate); he buys a concubine (Lotus) and builds her her own quarters with her own slaves; he starts to find fault with his wife, O-Lan "...who plodded in silence . . . her features were too large . . . and her feet were large and spreading." (her feet had not been bound); he no longer toils the land himself but employs men to work on his fields. While his attitude to everything changes the one thing that appears to remain a constant in his life, is his love for the land, his appreciation of it and the awareness that he would have been nothing had it not been for "The Good Earth".

What I liked about the novel:

The narrative is simply written and very easy to read. The language employed is quaint and sweet. It's the kind of novel you could read anywhere, but, be warned, its impact can send you reeling. Pearl Buck writes about ancient China like none of her contemporaries, I'm sure there were Chinese writers also writing about China in that period, but sometimes local writers do not describe social customs and traditions in detail (they expect it is understood). Pearl Buck knew she was writing for an American audience and writes in glorious detail taking the reader into the heart of the place sharing the customs, tradtions, history and the thinking of the time (the 1920's)

What I learned:

I was most appalled by the gender inequality and how women were treated. In 20-century China, women were not daughters, they were borne simply to be a man's slave, they were even referred to as "slave" or "maid".

"...she was a like a faithful, speechless serving maid, who is only a serving maid and nothing more. And it was not meet that he should say to her, "why do you not speak"? It should be enough that she fulfilled her duty"

Along with this serfdom they had to put up with foot binding, a husband's many concubines and looking after his extended family's every whim, it certainly made feel so lucky to be born a woman in this era and this part of the world. I cannot help but question, however, if much has changed for the women of China. If you have read Xinran's book "The Good WOmen of China" you will know why I ask.

Also, I was most impressed with the filial piety practised by the Chinese. As much as Wang Lung hated his uncle (his father's brother) he was compelled to look after him and his family until they died, providing for all their needs, like food, lodging and even their recreational smokes.


I think Pearl Buck meant the land to serve as a metaphor for one's value system, one's traditions. As long as Wang Lung stayed close to the land and tended to it himself, he was a morally upright man, but the minute he strayed away from it or handed over the tending to outsiders, his morals started to waiver. I think Wang Lung always knew that deep down inside and that's why he clung to his land

update: Les from Lesley's Book Nook has a wonderful, wonderful review of the same book. Check it out!


ML said...

What an amazing review of The Good Earth! This is one of the books I chose to read this year...actually I chose it because I saw it on your blog :)


J said...

I haven't read this one yet, either. I might have to add it to my list. :)

Anonymous said...

loved the idea of reading a book with a friend... and remembered of Azar Nafisi's 'Reading Lolita in Tehran'... u can't read this amazing memoir of books, not wanting to be part of Azar's reading club,... with today's busy life style though, the kind of get togethers described in this book is no more than a dream ... a circle of pen friends/blog friends is more likely to be acquired!

!sorry this comment is not much relevant to ur book review itself!

have not read this one and will, soon...when i read your reviews two things can happen to me:

(1) promising myself to read the book/watch the movie, if i have not read/watched it yet,
(2) keep nodding in approval, if i have read/watched!

Beenzzz said...

Lotus, This looks like a wonderful read! I too am appauled that Chinese women were referred to as "maid" and "slave." They new nothing but degredation from the day they enter the world to the day they leave it. This makes me even more curious to read it. Wonderful review as always. :)

Cassiopeia Rises said...

Very good review Lotus. I remember reading that book long ago and loving it so much that I read all of her books. I believe she was a missionaries daughter and spent a great deal of time in China.I'm not sure.
I must get going on my reviews of the Stacks and 2007 Winter challenge too.
Also, thanks for reading my PT poem. I did not think that I would be up to it but then I love to write so much. It is a small joy in my life.


Asha said...

I have this book at home and it's my daughter's 10th grade essay as well!Great reading your review on it!:))Good choice.

Lotus Reads said...

ml There's no better fun than reading the same book and comparing notes. I can't wait until you read it!

J After reading "The GOod Earth" all those many years ago, I was so impressed that I read as many Pearl Buck books as I could lay my hands on. There are sequels to this novel but I am too lazy to retreive the titles at the moment!

Neda Whether or not it bears direct reference to the book, your input is always welcome and valuable! Ohhhh, I love f2f book clubs like the one in "Reading Lolita" - what didn't they discuss, it was so much fun to read! I used to belong to great South-Asian book club but haven't managed to go in ages because of other committments. Angela was a real sweetie to read this book with me - there is so much to discuss in 'The Good Earth' that I hardly knew where to stop with my review.

Beloved You are absolutely right. She is the daughter of missionaries and that's how she landed up in China. She got into a lot of trouble with the church with regard to "The Good Earth" because she was rather ambivalent towards the Christian religion in the book. The church was of the opinion that she should spread Christianity through her books and not just write for art's sake.

Wow Asha I didn't realize they were reading it even today! That's great to know. Actually, this wasn't a part of my school curriculum - I just chanced upon her book at the library one time and was hooked.

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading it with me! I love discussing books! One thing I didn't mention, but it is what I liked the best about the book: the author never judges. I think that might be the best thing about the book. Yes, there were horrible things in the book, but there is no (or if there is, I missed it) authorial intrusion. We are totally on our own to decide about the book.

Booklogged said...

Lotus, wonderful review and it's sparked some good discussion, both of which I've enjoyed reading. I read The Good Earth in high school and loved it. You make me want to read it again and discover how I would feel about it at this point in my life.

Praveen Krishnan said...

That was a neat little review. Truly a wonderful writeup. I certainly loved the simply style attributed to the book.

Sai said...

Lovely review, unfortunately I haven't read this book but will read it soon.

Lotus Reads said...

Sweet Beenzzz Sorry I missed your comment the first time. Yes, the way the women were treated was/is appalling! I wish someone would tell me this was not the case, but I know I live in hope.

Hi Angela Another great observation, thanks for pointing that out...I also missed stating that she's a Nobel prizewinning author, the first American lady writer to win it, I believe.

Hi, Booklogged I, too, would be very curious to see how you view this book the second time. I couldn't believe I saw it so differently.

Hello Praveen and thank you. It's like you noted - the style is simple but the message profound.

Hi Sai It's a nice easy read with a deep message. Hope you enjoy it.

Sugarlips said...

Lovely review Lotus asusual :)
I'll definitely read this book.
Just got done with "The Namesake"
and currently enjoying a memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran" :)

I really like "Maula re" and "Javeda Zindagi" from Anwar's sound track.

Stay Beautiful...!!

karmic said...

It's a lovely review. You captured the essence of the book very well. It's all about connections to the world around us the people, cultures, faith, the land, our food and the environment.
The moment these start to fray or all together snap we start to see imbalances.

hellomelissa said...

it's on my shelf, and i was planning to read it for the classics challenge until i decided not to do the classics challenge because i appear to be time challenged!

i'll read the review when (and if) i read it. let's give it a couple of years.

jacob said...

lovely review. i have a yellowing, tattered copy of the book on my shelves. and Peony too. Don't you just love the smell of aging books?

Literary Feline said...

I am not sure how this book stayed off my radar for so long. Your review makes me want to run out and buy it (but, alas, I'm already in my PJs and ready for bed) and read it. Thanks for the excellent review.

tanabata said...

Wonderful review Lotus! I'm looking forward to reading it later this month or next month (it's on my Classics Challenge list).

Aneeta said...

i read this book when i was young and i like the metaphor you described. It's apt and so true.

Lotus Reads said...

Sugarlips How did you like "The Namesake"? You've got to try and watch the movie now, it's very moving. Those two songs from "Anwar" are my favorites, too! :)

Sanjay What a lovely comment and the observation is so true, too. Thanks.

Melissa Yeah, with two little ones and not to mention the two pets, you are seriously time challenged. YOu come back here after you read "The Good Earth" - no matter how long it takes - and I'll be happy to discuss it with you!

Jacob *Clapping hands gleefully* Yes,yes, I remember "Peony"! I think I read almost all Pearl Buck novels! WRT aging books, I enjoy having them, I like to take them out from time to time and wonder at their history, but when it comes to reading, I enjoy a freshly printed book! :)

That's a great image you paint, Wendy lol, but you walking into a store in your PJ's might not have raised an eyebrow with those booksellers, I think they're so used to us booklovers doing crazy things!

Nat Yes! I remembered you, too, had 'The Good Earth" on your Winter Challenge List. I will keep checking your blog.

Thanks Aneeta and so happy to see you here. How's the book coming along?

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful review, your portrait of the book is outstanding. As soon as I have my current list finished, "Good Earth" will be my first read.

Les said...

This is the only book by Buck that I've read. Well, that's not true. I read a children's book (The Water Buffalo Children) when I was in younger. I really enjoyed The Good Earth when I read it last year. Glad you weren't disappointed! Off to see what sequels Amazon has to offer. Lovely review, Lotus.

gautami tripathy said...

I had read it long time back. I think 20 years. You recalled it for me. I will go read itagain. I finished reading zoya's story a while back. Now I am reading nothing.

Laura said...

I am listening to Autumn Moon Over a Quiet Lake and it makes me want to weep with happiness! thank you!

Sugarlips said...

Movie is coming in March Lotus.
Will watch definitely :)
Gogol Ganguli ;)
I like Tabu :)

Stay Beautiful...!!

Lotus Reads said...

Syliva I cannot wait to find out what you think!!!

Les Thank you! You were responsible for reigniting my interest in "The Good Earth". I have been meaning to come over to your blog to reread your review. I will do so soon.

Gautami I hadn't realized Pearl Buck was so popular with Indian readers. I know that Maugham was - everybody I knew in school and college had read all that Maugham had written. I've only ever read "Of Human Bondage" but what a book that was!!!

Ohhh Laura I'm glad the music moved you so much. It had the same effect on me. Thank you for letting me know.

Sugarlips Ahhh, sorry, I forgot the commercial release has been delayed till March. I saw it at a film festival here in Toronto. Wonderful movie!

Jude said...

Chinese culture is fascinating isn't it? Have you read Empress Orchid by Anchee Min? It's a really interesting insight into the last empress of China. Well worth a read.

Parth said...

In a lot of ways, this novel could have been placed in an Indian setup and it would have still been as effective. I remember having a chapter from this book in our school textbook as well. Nice read.

Bybee said...

Hi Lotus,
I just finished The Good Earth last night, so I was so happy to click on your blog and see that you'd just read it, too. It was wonderful. I love the cadences of Buck's storytelling. Although I really don't get into audiobooks, this might be a really good one to hear read aloud.
What did you think when you saw "Lotus" was a rather unsympathetic character? lol

Olivia said...

Blogger stopped working earlier when I tried to comment.

I wanted to say I read this book in school too - in 7th or 8th grade. ALL I can remember is her walking through mud. About 15 years later, I know I will understand it better if I read it now. However, I have bought so many books over the past year that I am probably close to 20 books behind...and friends are always recommending new ones.



(Aha, just realised the reason I couldn't comment earlier is because I was signed in with Blogger, not Google.)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Jude! Yes! I have read several books by Anchee Min and I agree, she's an excellent writer. The one you recommend is truly a wonderful book...definitely something I would reread.

Hi Parth That's an interesting observation - and to a large extent, yes, this could have happened in much the same way in India, but I still have problems with the issue of the subjugation of women...I don't think they were treated so badly, were they?

Hi Bybee Lovely to have you here! Yes, I agree, this would be a wonderful book to "listen" to. LOL that you picked up on Lotus. To tell you the truth, I was a tad embarassed...wish she could have been a more likeable character. However, she must have had a "wow" factor for Wang Lung to give her her all his adoration, her own slaves and quarters! ;)

Hi, Olivia And welcome! Thank you so much for the comment. You know what's really funny? Before I reread 'The Good Earth' the image of Olan walking through the mud was the same one that kept going through my mind - I kid you not! Will visit you soon!

Joy said...

Hi Lotus! I have this as an alternate for the Classics Challenge. I may just read it anyway. :) Thanks!

Lotus Reads said...

I hope you do, Joy, this is an easy enough read and the story is truly wonderful.

Susan in Italy said...

What great memories! I read this book Sophomore year in high school.

The Traveller said... make me want to get this off my shelf and reread it again! I love The Good Earth so much. I don't know if you have seen a book around called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I recieved it for Christmas and was stunned at how good it was. It is by Lisa See and is set in China again but deals with (among other things) a secret language women developed called nushu (lit. women's language), and going on what you like about this one, I think you'd really enjoy it. It delves into local customs and what life was like for women and how they got through tough times with amazing empathy and clarity.

Lauren said...

While metaphors and the likes are way above my head when it comes to reading, I'm glad you reviewed this. I've had it on my TBR for a while. I should push it up!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Susan Yup, it does appear that Pearl Buck's 'The Good Earth' was mandatory reading for US school children and, apparently, still is. Now, a book that has endured so long is truly a classic!

Hi Traveller Yes!!! I remember reading "Snowflower...Fan" and what a book that was! I remember thinking it was the perfect book to give the woman in your life, be it a teacher, a best friend, a sister or a mother. I gave my copy away, but I would love to buy another one and keep it for my daughters to read.

Hi Lauren You'll be glad you did. It's quite an easy read but packs a punch! Nice to see you here and thanks for the comment!

karmic said...

There is a book review up. :)

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks for letting me know! I was looking for a review all through the weekend! :)

JoanneMarie Faust said...

Great review! I can not believe that I have yet to read this book. It's been sitting on my bookshelf staring me down for ages. I must transfer it to the nightstand and soon.

Jennie said...

I'll pop in and say I didn't have to read this in school until college. And then I read it in my "Contemporary Topics in Chinse Culture" class when I was studying abroad at Nanjing University and got to walk by Buck's house every day on the way to class.

I will also say that I didn't finish it at the time, but did go back and read it through a few years ago.

I will say that women are treated better in China than they were, but it's still not great. (Also, if you look at the Xinran book, a lot of those stories aren't necessarily "Chinese".) And I'll point out that only upper class women had their feet bound-- O Lan's certainly weren't!

I think the most interesting part of The Good Earth was when they were in Shanghai begging. I found that the most powerful and enlighting.

Has anyone read the sequels, Sons and A House Divided? I keep checking them out and then not reading them before they have to go back. Is it worth trying again?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Piksea I would definitely classify this as a 'must read' - although it is set in early 20th-century China (and Buck's descriptions of that part of the world are a big part of what makes this book so appealing), it is a story of universal themes which you will enjoy.

Hello Jenni Welcome! First off, I was going through your blog for a short while this morning and was intrigued. I will return for a longer read.

Lucky you to have lived so close to where Pearl Buck lived. How is she thought of in China?

Yup, it was Olan's big feet that made Wang Lung ashamed of her, so lotus feet were certainly very desirable with those that could afford to have them, after all, with small feet one certainly couldn't be expected to perform any household chores. I just find the old Chinese culture so fascinating. I will be visiting your blog frequently for book recommendations.

About the sequels, I have read "A House Divided" but it was so long ago, I barely remember anything. It's definitely time for a reread!

Lisa Johnson said...

What a great review! My mom read this book with her book club a few months ago. Everyone really loved the book. I'm going to borrow it from her when I get a chance. I also like that you had a virtual book club meeting. Very cool!

Oh, and I like your Avatar! You had a great picture before though. I thought about putting my Avatar on my blog too. Maybe at some point....

Lotus Reads said...

hi Anali How good of you to visit despite all that you have to do at the moment. Yes, I loved my virtual book club - it was so much fun and it was wonderful how Angela was able to show me things about the book that I might not discovered on my own. We should have more of these!

Avatars are fun, but, yes, the picture will return! :) I'll be looking for your avatar, Anali!

get zapped said...

Thanks again, for your wonderful reviews! I just put this on hold at the library ; ) I'm currently reading "Japanland" and enjoying it very much. Another eye opener into another culture. Peace.

Radha said...

Just discovered your blog. Thats a great review!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi getzapped I am dying to get my hands on "Japanland", will do so soon!

Hi Radha Lovely of you to stop by, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I loved your review of Good Earth, the music links are a really good touch!
You have an amazing blog, like an e-gathering of so many bibliophiles.

Best Wishes!

Anonymous said...

I love your review of Good Earth.

This book will stir your heart, stimulate your mind, and cause you to question what is important in your own life and in the world of human beings. A perfect read!

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Great review - I hope you don't mind, I put a link to it in my review.

Anonymous said...

Anyone have an interpretation of how the book is vs. the sure there are many differences in the character of wang lung etc.

Cindy said...

I am a researcher and docent at Pearl S Buck's national historic landmark home in Pennsylvania. Interesting to read your comments -- Peony is PSB's novel about the Chinese Jews & we have her silk curtains which she writes of in the novel. I have read most of her novels & children's books.