Historical Fiction

The Good Earth

Author: Pearl S. Buck

Published By: Pocket Books

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            Sometimes, when we are young, we pick up a book we simply arenít ready for.  We start to read it and then put it down, never to be picked up again.  Such was the case when I first began to read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  However, Iíve never been one not to finish what Iíve started.  Thus, when I saw a copy of the novel on display at the local Barnes & Noble, I realized that I had never finished reading this novel.  I quickly purchased a copy and read it from cover to cover.

            First published in 1931, the novel tells the story of a poor farmer and his lifeís journey during the reign of the last emperor in China.  Wang Lung began his life simple enough.  The son of a farmer, Wang Lung has a love for the land like no other.  He works hard and tends to it even when it seems that the rains will never come and the harvest will be poor.  His father arranges a marriage for Wang Lung as is the custom of the time.  Being a poor farmer, he can only afford a marriage to a young slave woman who works in the kitchen at the rich Hwang estate. 

            At first, Wang Lung is hesitant at marrying a former slave, but he soon realizes what a treasure his father has found in this woman.  For one thing, she is a hard worker and brings order and cleanliness to his simple home.  She knows how to keep his aging father content and is equal to the task of pleasing Wang Lung himself.  Second, this woman is not afraid to help him work in the fields and, although the labor is hard, still finds a way to keep up with her home chores.  Third, and perhaps most important to a man of Wang Lungís culture, she has born him a healthy son.  Wang Lungís early years with O-Lan are quite content and he is able to make a little profit.  He decides to spend that profit on a piece of land from the Hwangs as their house is in rapid decline and can only earn money through the sale of their rich land.

            It is after the purchase of this land that Wang Lung has his first bout with misfortune.  A great drought affects the land and just before his family starves, Wang Lung and O-Lan decide that they will head south.  While his family begs in the streets, he toils as a laborer, pulling a rickshaw until the soldiers come and begin pulling all able bodied men into service.  He goes into hiding while his wife continues to beg with the children.  Like so many men, Wang Lung is intrigued by the Westerners who come with their strange ideas and their easy money.  However, there are some who detest these foreigners as much as they do anyone with easy money.  An uprising takes place and Wang Lung and O-Lan are fortunate enough to prosper from it. 

            Returning to the land, Wang Lung purchases even more from the House of Hwang and begins his journey to riches.  Working with his former neighbor, Ching, Wang Lung finds wealth in his harvests and soon becomes a man sought after for knowledge and money.  But happiness eludes him despite all he has.  It is at this time that Wang Lung begins the cycle which destroyed the House of Hwang, for he has not learned from the mistakes of this fine house and is doomed to repeat its history.

            This is the first time I have ever read a novel in which I was so attached to the characters that I actually became emotional about their plight.  Pearl S. Buckís writing is such that I could actually picture these characters and the hardships and happy times that they experienced.  Thus, I became extremely invested in their outcome, more so than any other characters I had met in other novels I had read.  I became extremely angry with Wang Lung and his actions once he came into money.  I remember putting the book down and yelling that he was being foolish and that he would come to a bitter end.  Of course, this drew some questioning looks from the people in the area, but instead of shrinking in horror at my outburst, I began to tell them the story of the family I was reading about, delighting in sharing such a great novel with them.

            And believe me, The Good Earth is an excellent novel.  Having lived in China as the daughter of missionary parents and returning to it as an adult, Pearl S. Buck has great insight into the time and place the novel is set in.  She has incredible insight into its people and culture.  At the time this novel was published, little was known about the people of China and their ways.  The Good Earth did much to create an understanding of their culture and traditions.

            I canít understand why I put this book down so many years ago and never picked it up again until now.  Perhaps I simply wasnít ready for the stark realism portrayed in the novel.  Perhaps this was a novel I couldnít appreciate until I had gained some maturity and life experience myself.  Iím so glad that I picked up this copy of The Good Earth.   It was a fast and intriguing read that so completely absorbed me, I was shocked when I reached the last page.  Happily, I learned that this novel is the first of a trilogy of novels by Pearl S. Buck.  If they are even half as good as The Good Earth, then reading the continuing story of the House of Wang will be quite engrossing to say the least.


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