Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster Ltd – Washington Square Press; 368 pages; 2004.
The Good Earth is the first in an “oriental trilogy” written by American-born Pearl S. Buck. First published in 1931, it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Medal in 1935. (Buck later received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 — “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces” — the first American woman to do so.)
The story, which spans some 50 years, is a relatively simple one about a poor peasant farmer, Wang Lung, who works hard to become a wealthy landowner.
Set in the period before the Revolution, it depicts China under the reign of its last emperor and presents a fascinating glimpse of rural life, where famine, flood and locust plagues are never far away.
The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day. He has never meet his betrothed, O-lan, who is a slave at the House of Wwang (a family of rich landowners), but he is excited to have finally taken a wife.
She had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils, and her mouth was wide as a gash in her face. Her eyes were small and of a dull black in colour, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed. It was a face that seemed habitually silent and unspeaking, as though it could not speak if it would. She bore Wang Lung’s look, without embarrassment or response, simply waiting until he had seen her. He saw that it was true: there was not beauty of any kind in her face — a brown, common, patient face. But there were no pockmarks on her dark skin, nor was her lip split. In her ears he saw his rings hanging, the gold-washed rings he had bought, and on her hands were the rings he had given her. He turned away with secret exultation. Well, he had his woman!
He takes her to his small house that he shares with his ageing father, and together the pair till the soil and tend to the crops. O-lan, stoic and hardworking, bears him three much-desired sons, as well as two daughters, one of whom is mentally handicapped.
Their life together is ruled very much by the seasons, and when starvation threatens in the early days of their marriage they retreat to the city in order to beg for food and try their fortune earning money by means other than farming.
But through sheer hard work, and a little bit of good fortune, Wang Lung is able to secure the future of his family by buying up little parcels of land whenever he has enough silver, and by the time he is in his 50s he is the wealthiest man in the village. This, in turn, presents him with new problems, including lazy relatives who suddenly want a piece of his new-found wealth. And how Wang Lung deals with these interesting moral dilemmas provides a good dose of narrative tension.
Stylistically, the book has the feel of a much-loved fable. The prose style is slightly old-fashioned, without being clunky, but there’s never any doubt that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.
I enormously enjoyed following the course of Wang Lung’s extraordinary life. And while Pearl S. Buck obviously has a message to push — that hard graft reaps rewards — this doesn’t detract from an epic story that is filled with emotional highs and lows, joy and fear, lust and love, life and death.
The Good Earth is highly recommended if you are looking for an absorbing tale that highlights how ambition, honour and a smidge of good luck can overcome adversity but not necessarily solve all your problems…