As a student in the sixties and early seventies, I am certain that I read bits of Pearl Buck's writings from literature textbooks. She was a living author and not as forgotten then as she is now. I think we discussed her in Mr. Wallace's sophomore English class in high school. I've long had a vague sense that she was an interesting woman. I finally read and mostly enjoyed The Good Earth several years ago (though it was a bit long). So I welcomed getting Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth by Hilary Spurling.
Being the daughter of impassioned Christian missionaries who were set on converting China, you wouldn't think that Pearl would end up being so sympathetic to common Chinese people and their traditions. The rural peasants and village merchants to whom her father tried to preach mostly ignored him, except at times of political rebellion when they sough to kill him and his family. Someone always saved the Bucks, hiding them or helping them flee. They seemed to lose their meager possessions and need to be bailed out by the missionary society frequently. Why would Pearl identify so with these people? Spurling explains that as a girl, Pearl's busy mother often left her in the care of her Chinese housekeeper. Pearl played with Chinese children, and her mother got her a local scholar as a tutor. Pearl was already eight when she discovered that she was not Chinese.
Pearl's upbringing did not really prepare her for life in the West. While she excelled at college and was awarded prizes, she never fit into campus life. When she first married, she was not really interested managing a house with furniture and lots of possessions. She was always awkward socially. Her best times were reading and writing alone.
Spurling's biography of Pearl Buck focuses mostly on the novelist's life in China, her subsequent longing to get back to her adopted land when she was exiled, and the way that she recreated her China in her novels and memoirs. While having read Buck's books might help, Spurling helps readers with plenty of plot descriptions and quotations. Biography readers and those interested in history of the 20th century will enjoy this quick-reading book.
Spurling, Hilary. Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth. Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 9781416540427.