In praise of Pearl Buck
My mother introduced me to Pearl Buck some twenty-five years ago. I was visiting my parents, who lived in a village in the middle of nowhere, and found myself at a loose end from a reading point of view. “Have you read any Pearl Buck?” she asked. I reckoned I’d gone through everything vaguely interesting on my parents’ bookshelves years ago. Apparently not.
I started with the 1945 novel, Portrait Of A Marriage, and although I just couldn’t get my head around the annoying dynamic of the marriage, (as a banner-waving feminist, I think it felt too passive and old-fashioned in comparison to the books I was reading at the time), there was something almost haunting about the way it was written. The style was a little too verbose for my liking, but still, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, so I started another, Pavilion of Women, and it all began to drop into place.
Written in 1946, Pavilion of Women is one of Pearl Buck’s superb Oriental novels, and tells the story of Madam Wu, who, upon reaching her fortieth birthday, decides to retire from married life and brings a concubine into the household for her husband. It is a delicate and beautiful story, written of a certain time, and I have never forgotten it.
Pearl Buck was born in 1892 in West Virginia, and grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries. It was there, in the grave-littered grasslands behind their house, that she would stumble across the tiny bones of baby girls who had been suffocated at birth. She started writing in her twenties, and became so prolific that her works are almost unlistable, yet, by the time that I started reading her, she had been largely forgotten.
Many of Pearl Buck’s novels deal with the confrontation of East and West, with the fragile business of customs and traditions, and, most brilliantly, with the intricacies of all-too-human relationships and the lot of women in her far-flung settings. Her 1931 novel, The Good Earth, earned her a string of awards, among them the Pulitzer. In 1938, she was recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her writing spilled over into political journalism, and she wasn’t afraid to speak her mind and to press for Chinese women’s liberation.
I knew none of this when I started reading her, and in my years as a writer, I came to realize how little known she had become. I mentioned her to one of my editors many moons ago, and she had never even heard of her. Then, a couple years back, her name popped up on the radio as the subject of a newly-released biography about her life in China.
The Good Earth re-entered the American bestseller charts in 2004 after being selected for Oprah’s Book Club, over seventy years after it was first published, and thirty years after the author’s death. These days, whenever somebody asks me for a book recommendation, I often hear myself saying, “Have you read any Pearl Buck?”
This article was published on For Books’ Sake