The Good Earth

20 March 2014
Written by Diana Kenny
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Diana reviews The Good Earth, an epic novel tracing the terrors, passions, ambitions and rewards of an ordinary Chinese family caught in the tide of history 


The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

Our book club book this month was a surprise for me. I was expecting something a little dated as The Good Earth was first published in 1931, but it was anything but.  

Pearl S. Buck, the novel's American author, was raised in China during the early 1900s by her missionary parents and her writing is very much a reflection of the things she saw and experienced during her almost 40 years in China.  She and her parents were present during the Boxer Uprising - a violent anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement that took place in China between 1898 and 1900. Later in life, with her husband, she experienced the Nanjing Incident - a confused rebellion involving nationalists, communists and warlords during which several westerners where murdered.

The Good Earth reads mainly as an account of a poor rural farmer, Wang Lung, and his gradual rise in fortune. Wang Lung lives with his elderly father and the story begins with Wang Lung’s wedding day and marriage to O-Lan, a slave from the wealthy House of Hwang. O-Lan is not pock-marked, something Wang Lung had dreaded, but she is plain, has unbound feet and a taciturn manner. Uncomplainingly, O-Lan sets the house in order, cares for the elderly father and eventually bears Wang Lung six children.

Having organised the house, O-Lan joins Wang Lung in the fields - together they work the land and gradually there is enough silver hidden in the walls of the house to add even more land, which is purchased from The House of Hwang. The House of Hwang plays a significant part in the novel as an example of all that can be acquired and then lost though dissipation, lack of insight and opium use. O-Lan was badly treated there as a kitchen slave and Wang Lung envies their land.

Through the good years, Wang Lung acquires land and silver but land and silver are of little use when drought and famine strike. When all the food is gone and the small family are on the verge of starving the decision is made to go south and find work.  Before they leave, Wang Lung sells his last processions to his malicious uncle but refuses to hand over his land.

In the city Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, O-Lan and the children beg and the elderly father cares for the second child, an unfortunate girl Wang Lung calls Poor Fool because she is backward, probably due to malnutrition.  Girl children were called slaves and unwanted, whereas the boys were indulged, not unlike among cultures today who practise similar values.  

During a food riot in the city the peasants invade a rich man’s home, the outer wall of which the family had been using as part of their shelter.  Wang Lung and O-Lan join the mob, looting the mansion and each in their own way comes away with a small fortune.

The family decide to return to their land and the transition begins for Wang Lung from frugal peasant to wealthy landowner, only now he hires labourers to work the land and loses his own connection with it. His sons are sent to school and he himself starts to explore the delights of the city.

Throughout the book, Buck's writing feels almost dispassionate, but I would like to believe her sympathies lie with O-Lan. As a picture of China before WW1 I would assume it to be fairly accurate. Buck would have been 22 at the outbreak of the war and had spent nearly all of her life in China. 

The scale of this novel is almost biblical with triumphs and tragedies, the detailing of the inner and outer family structure, the ethical lessons to be learnt through abandonment of one’s ideals and in the failure to remain connected to the source of the wealth – the land.

The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy. In 1932 Buck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature and in 1938 the Nobel Prize in Literature; "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces". 

An excerpt from The Good Earth:

If you sell the land it is the end. 
And his two sons held him, one on either side, each holding his arm and he held in his hand the warm loose earth.  And they soothed him and they said over and over, the elder son and the second son.
“Rest assured, our father, rest assured.  The land is not to be sold.”
But over the old man’s head they looked at each other and smiled.

Why do I feel that this is happening to us as a nation?

  • Reading is part of who Diana Kenny is, some of her earliest memories are of trips to the library and of being fascinated with a certain banned book! Diana has also been a member of a book club for over 20 years so taking on the mantle of MyMag book reviewer has been an easy step for this bookworm.  Diana Kenny: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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