Like I’m not even kidding. The book should be called Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems. Because that’s what happened. Mr. Wang Lung starts the book as a poor man and as his fortunes change for better, for worse, so do his problems. Okay, no spoilers. But just remember: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.
Why did I pick this book? I got it free of charge with my Kindle Unlimited subscription. It said “Pulitzer Winner” on the cover and I’m at that point in my life where I prioritize the books to read. Google says 150,000,000 books have been published in the world. Even if I read one book per day, I would need to live about 350,000 years. So I decided to only read prize winners. Yes, I know I’ll miss out on a lot of really fantastic books that haven’t won prizes. But hey, no time.
I find Pearl Buck’s writing style fascinating. I’m not sure if it was intentional but for a long time, the story is told from Wang Lung’s point of view. It means that his wife is simply referred to as “The Woman”, his children as “The Elder Son” and “The Younger Son”. Eventually, the story evolves to the point where she is referred to by her name “O-lan”. But the sons are only named once, when they’re old enough to go to school. And then, they are never named again.
There are interesting insights into pre-communist Chinese culture. There is the emphasis on the importance of sons. O-lan births two sons before she gives birth to a girl (all were unassisted births, by the way). And when Wang Lung returns home and enquires about the last birth, she simply says, “It is only a slave.” Ouch!
It’s a theme that is repeated over and over in the book. Women exist for purely utilitarian purposes and not even in the way you might imagine. Consider this passage:
Now this isn’t a bad principle in picking a life partner, I think. It’s good for women to pull their weight in charting the fortunes of their families and O’lan does that pretty well. But at some point in their story, they consider selling their daughter into slavery. Because…slave.
It was my first time reading Pearl Buck; the biggest surprise was discovering she wasn’t even Chinese. Imagine an Italian writing a novel about a Nigerian family living in Nigeria. I suppose there are Chinese people who don’t think the book is authentic enough but for people like me who’ve been exposed to no Chinese culture but Mulan, The Good Earth offers a glimpse into China like CNN won’t give you. Wang Lung’s attachment to Land is almost spiritual. Land as property that can never be stolen, Land as an asset that keeps on giving, Land as wealth that cannot be eaten up by insects. Even when his land is flooded, he lives with the assurance that one day, it will be arable. Even on the cusp of death by starvation, he refuses to sell his land. Instead, he feeds his children soil mixed in water to form a thin gruel. Land becomes Life.
Will I read it again? Yes. It’s the kind of book you want to buy in hard copy even though you’ve read a soft copy. It’s a fairly long book but it doesn’t feel like it; you can’t wait to get to the end so you keep reading and reading and reading. And for this reason, I give this book an 8/10.
Have you read The Good Earth? Did you like it? Which Pulitzer (or Man Booker) books do you recommend?