“And what will we do with a pretty woman? We must have a woman who will tend the house and bear children as she works in the fields, and will a pretty woman do these things? She will be forever thinking about clothes to go with her face! No, not a pretty woman in our house. We are farmers. Moreover, who has heard of a pretty slave who was virgin in a wealthy house? All the young lords have had their fill of her. It is better to be first with an ugly woman than the hundredth with a beauty.”
I won an advance reader copy of Anchee Min’s Pearl of China recently, which finally gave me that extra little push I needed to pick up this Pulitzer Prize winner by Nobel Laureate author Pearl S. Buck, who happens to be one of the main characters of Min’s most recent novel. When we meet Wang Lung in the opening pages of The Good Earth, he is a poor farmer taking care of his elderly father. On this day he is preparing for a special event: today is the day he will go get himself a wife, and he looks forward to his new life, when he will no longer have to boil the water for his father to drink in the morning, nor have to prepare food, nor clean house, as there will finally be a woman by his side to take care of all these things. Wang Lung feels in a celebratory mood, so he puts a few tea leaves in his father’s water and goes as far as taking a bath, even as his father objects to such waste and luxury. Indeed, what if the new wife comes to expect these things? All the same, Wang Lung has in mind to have a feast that night and works out that with his few coins, he might be able to afford some meat and even perhaps to get a shave from a barber.
He makes his way to the town, and eventually presents himself to the great House of Hwang, which is owned by a wealthy family, and where even the man who guards the gate makes him feel inferior. Wang Lung is there to collect O Lan, the woman who is to be his wife. O Lan has been a slave in the kitchens of this house for the better part of her life, which is all a man in Wang Lungs’s position can expect for a wife. O Lan will sacrifice herself completely for her husband and the family she gives him, as is expected of a woman in China in these pre-revolutionary days. And so we follow this family and the great saga that unfolds in clear and simple prose that belies the complexity of human relations, the great struggles and changes, and the timeless themes explored in this novel which well deserves to be regarded as a masterpiece of the twentieth century. Pearl S. Buck said she only wrote about what she knew, and that China was all she knew about, having spent the better part of her life there at the time of the book’s publication. Part of her genius is in creating a story set in a China known to few people in the West, with its people and customs and values so very foreign and strange to a modern Western reader, yet exploring universal themes which make us empathize with the characters and live through their struggles right alongside them. A thoroughly enjoyable and enriching reading experience, this novel deserves to be read at least once. I’ll be looking for the two other books in the House of Earth trilogy and have added several other titles by Buck, including The Pavillion of Women, Peony and The Three Daughters of Madam Liang to the boundless wish list.