I just listened to The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, which won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Literature and has long been assigned for high school reading. I somehow missed having to read more than an excerpt in school, but I have had it on my to-read-someday list for a long time. Someday came last week when I found the audiobook on a display at the Downers Grove Public Library.
Based on second-hand knowledge, I had numerous assumptions about The Good Earth, many of which have been disproved. I did know that the story involved Chinese peasant farmers in the early part of the Twentieth Century and I knew that Buck was frank in her descriptions of daily life. I expected tragedy, but I also expected comic relief and characters standing up against adversity honorably. What I found was one long tale of characters compromising their morals to survive a relentlessly cruel environment. There is no one to admire in The Good Earth. (You can argue that last statement.)
The central character is Wang Lung, who is a poor farmer as the book begins. He is caring for his old father and owns nothing but his land, house, a few pieces of furniture, a few farm implements, and some seed. In rural China of the time, that was not bad. His father arranges for Wang Lung to take a slave woman from a great house in the village as his wife. They start having children, struggle to make ends meet, and flee to the south during a terrible drought. To save his children from starvation, Wang Lung does many things against his conscience and begins to justify the acts to himself. An opportunity for easy money badly gained leads to his stake at wealth. Hard work and cunning turn the stake into great wealth, but he never regains his moral courage.
The Good Earth can be read at several levels. It can be accepted as a story of one poor man. It may also be considered a story of China. Like Wang Lung, the country justified many terrible acts throughout the past century; women were treated very badly; children were sold into slavery; many died in the revolutions. The children of Wang Lung represent differing parties that struggled to control the land. Every type of villain you can imagine appears in the book: bandits, soldiers, prostitutes, opium sellers. I read in Women in History: A Biographical Encyclopedia that it had been translated into nine Chinese languages. I suspect many of the Chinese took offense to its portrayal of their society.
The book may also be read as a warning for any country that loses sight of its basic values. When tending to the land and the family are replaced by the pursuit of pleasure as the people's focus, the country will be torn apart by conflict.
Every source I read says that Pearl Buck was an advocate for China. Seventy-five years later her most famous book still raises many questions about the Chinese. Like Oprah, I bet The Good Earth would make a great discussion book.
Buck, Pearl. The Good Earth. Books on Tape, 2001. ISBN 0736685146. 10 discs