I read this book when I was in high school and had come to think of it later as memorable, but not great fiction. It was hugely popular when it was written in 1931 and won Pearl Buck the Nobel Prize. It has come to be seen with more interest, perhaps because of the 2010 book Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth by Hilary Spurling.
Buck grew up in China as the child of missionaries; Chinese was her first language. She knew how the peasants lived and brought that knowledge to the American public by telling the life story of a Chinese peasant. Wang Lung was extraordinarily diligent and determined. The tale begins with his marriage to O-Lan, a woman sold to him by the opium-addicted rich woman of the town; O-Lan is his match in strength and focus and while they were partners, their connection was dictated by custom with no kindness or warmth. We see their lives change as they begin to acquire land, experienced a drought that killed many, lived through a rebellion that enabled them first to restore themselves to land ownership and then to become rich. Wang Lung fully triumphs over the rich landowner and even moves into that dwelling where his wife O-Lan had been a slave. Along with all his success, we hear of his addiction to a courtesan who he takes as his second wife, the troubles with his children, and finally as he is dying, hearing that the land he so valued will be sold.
Through the reviews I read of Hilary Spurling’s book, I learned that Buck’s book had an impact on the American public’s view of Chinese people by creating these characters at a time when Chinese had been specifically excluded from the US (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). “The popular notion of a Chinaman was either a figure of fun or a monster of depravity,” according to Spurling. The turmoil within China and its role in the world was beginning to change in those years. Spurling says Buck is largely forgotten and was never recognized in feminist work. While her fiction is not respected as literature, she managed to write (and get published) a very successful book that expressed ideas that ran counter to the popular view.
My own evaluation of this book as literature is mixed. While Wang Lung’s life tidily illustrated all manner of experiences in an unrealistic way, still, his thoughts were given enough respect to make him a viable character. He took pleasure in finding himself selling a slave he owned to a farmer, recalling that he had been in this scene as the farmer who purchased a wife. As he made his way from poor farmer to arrogant rich man, his actions and thoughts were not as we would wish, but were convincing. Along with the goal of revealing the lives of Chinese people to the American public, Buck clearly wanted to show the role of women in China. A girl child was referred to as a “slave,” even within the family.
Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth, Washington Square Press, 2004 (originally published 1931), 368 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.