Anchee Min. Bloomsbury USA. March 2010. Anchee Min, who also wrote Red Azalea, Becoming Madame Mao and The Last Empress, has written a fascinating story on the life of Pearl S. Buck. Buck grew up in China at the turn of the last century and came to be most well known for her wonderfully successful novel The Good Earth, which won her the Pulitzer in 1938 as the first American woman to win one.
Min grew up during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and was not allowed to read The Good Earth until she came to the US in 1996. She dedicates this novel to Buck as a tribute to her deep connection to China and the Chinese people. Since I lived in China for two years in the mid 80s and love The Good Earth, this was a natural book for me.
Willow, the main character, is the child of a poor man who attaches himself to Pearl's father in order to make his living by assisting the missionary in church building. At first the two girls don't like each other, but a mutual attraction and fascination eventually brings them together and makes them the best of friends. The novel progresses through their growing up years and on into early adulthood, marriages, the birth of Pearl's daughter, and the failure of both of their marriages. Pearl marries again and leaves China to live in the US. She adopts eight children and lives in a farm house in Pennsylvania. I have visited the home, which is preserved as a memorial. I have actually seen her typewriter set up on the desk in front of the window looking out over the garden as it is described in this book. I've walked around the huge wooden table in the kitchen and imagined the family gathered there on the long benches. It is really cool to read about Willow visiting this place and being able to relate to her feelings of awe and wonder and affection for Pearl.
Min also portrays the political upheavals in China through out the 20th century with insight and compassion. Willow lives through the Mao and Gang of Four, suffering and struggling to survive with the rest of the Chinese people. Her second husband is one of Mao's right hand men. At one point she returns to her childhood village and finds friends and family living crammed together in an empty church building. She is forced to work cleaning the town latrines, which in my personal experience is a horrendous sensory experience. They somehow make it through the cultural Revolution though, and Willow does alright just as Min has done. In spite of all the difficulties and miles separating them, Pearl and Willow hang onto their deep friendship. The vast differences in perspective and cultural values are brought to light in the simplest details of daily life. The tenderness of a life long friendship is celebrated even as the modern history of China is illustrated in the events of their lives.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in China or the novels of Pearl S. Buck and Anchee Min. I think it could be a good crossover book for young adults interested in modern history and cultural explorations. If you have spent any time in China you really need to read this book and leave me a comment about what you thought of it. As I read the descriptions of living conditions, food, family and countryside I was flooded with memories. I'd love to hear what you thought!