Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pearl of China

by 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!


Lilian said...

I LOVE Pearl Buck. My mom (who was born in 1940) read her when growing up and passed on her admiration to me, so I've read many of her books (it's hard to say most since she published so much) and I really loved them. I had my husband (then fiancée) read The Good Earth back in 1994 and he loved it as well.

It came as a huge shock to me to find out that she was extremely disregarded in American literary circles and that people thought her Nobel was a joke.

Then I read her biography (Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography) by Peter Conn and I understood that she was one more victim of McCarthyism -- with an FBI file, etc.

I think I'd love this novel. I went to Amazon and it seems there's definitely been a Pearl Buck resurgence, given the many recent editions of her work. There's also a brand new biography: Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling. I should write a post about Pearl Buck, that's for sure! I'll try to find the energy to do that during NaBloPoMo.

How are you my friend. I feel sad that I didn't get to see you in person and say good-bye when we moved. :-(

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I have always thought The Good Earth was the classic novel of all time. LOL really I absolutely love it and can't understand anyone not seeing that. It is a perfect gem. Glad you like it too Lilian!

Lilian said...

Well, I think The Good Earth remained popular, but I was truly disappointed to find that in academic literary circles Pearl Buck is (or used to be) ignored. And I did read a couple of articles about the Nobel Prize using Pearl Buck's prize as an example of how the Nobel is complete baloney. ;-)

In any case, I think her books are back, with labeling ("orientalist" or not).