“Pearl Buck and I have a long history together, and in some sense that story is at the heart of my novel. As a teen back in China in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution, I was asked to denounce Pearl Buck as an “American cultural imperialist.” Though I wasn’t given a change to read The Good Earth, I dutifully went ahead and made the denunciation. Years later, when I was living in America, […] I read the book on a plane and burst into tears. I cried because I realized how beautifully Buck had told the story of the Chinese peasant, in a way that few others, even Chinese, had ever done. And I cried because I was only then realizing that I was only one of a generation that had been indoctrinated to think poorly of Buck. I wrote the novel to show where Pearl’s great sensitivity and insight into the Chinese and Chinese culture came from. And also to show how the relationship between Pearl Buck and China changed over time, just as mine had changed.” — From a Q&A with Anchee Min in the Bloomsbury edition of Pearl of China
In this fictionalized biographical account, which spans from Pearl S. Buck’s years in China to several years after her death, the narrator, Willow, gives a first-person account of how she and Pearl came to know each other as little girls, and the progress of their lives as the two women become lifelong friends. Willow is an invention of course, and while Min says she based herself on several people to build that character, she also represents the fondness and admiration that Anchee Min herself has obviously developed for the American woman who embodied the Chinese spirit and went on to become a Nobel Prize-winning author, thanks to her novels which were set in China. Based on a mixture of fact and invention, Willow describes her own life situation, growing up with a father who was a beggar, and by contrast, Pearl’s parents, both Presbyterian missionaries, with Pearl’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker working tirelessly to bring the Christian faith to the mostly Buddhist natives, while her mother tried to bring music and culture and help the people in her own way, in a China that would never be home to her.
The first half of the book describes both young women’s progress in an evolving China undergoing grave turmoil, first with the Boxer Rebellion, a proto-nationalist movement which declared war on foreigners and Christianity. During the worst of the persecutions, Pearl sought shelter in America, but returned as soon as it was safe to do so with her new husband, agricultural economist missionary, John Lossing Buck with whom she had a child, Carol, who was sadly afflicted with a condition which caused mental retardation. Willow describes what appears to be an unhappy marriage, of a husband who refused to support Pearl’s fledgling writing career, of the difficulties the author faced when trying to have [The Good Earth] published, in a time when no one believed a book about the peasant class would be of interest to anyone. While I found all this interesting, this first part of the book seemed unconvincing; the Pearl character didn’t ring true and seemed two-dimensional. But things really took off following the “Nanking Incident” during which Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, Communist forces, and assorted warlords murdered several Westerners, and with their lives threatened Peal and her family were forced to leave China again, this time for good. From here on Willow’s first person narrative mostly concentrates on relating the changes that came with the rise of communism and the cult of Mao and though Pearl remains in the background, she seems more convincing at a distance, while the dramatic changes, not least of which the Cultural Revolution, are vividly recounted, Willow having married a man who is involved with the communist party from it’s very beginning and eventually becomes Mao’s right hand.
All in all, this early reviewer copy makes for an enjoyable reading experience, but since Min took plenty of artistic license, a non-fictional account of Pearl S. Buck’s life might be necessary to sort out fact from fiction, though Anchee Min does offer a uniquely Chinese perspective on Pearl’s life, her relationship to China and how the Chinese people viewed her. I’ll be reading more by Min, but I’m especially grateful that this novel encouraged me to finally read The Good Earth (see my review here).