I have been trying to think of a way to give some direction to my reading other than just a haphazard selection from books on the table at the library or mentioned in the newspaper or on a blog. It occurred to me after reading Le Clezio’s Wandering Star (see Charlotte’s April 23, 2010 blog) that I could use the Nobel Prize in Literature as an organizing structure. Working backward, it would take me a while but eventually I would get to Pearl S. Buck who was awarded the prize in 1938. In the meantime I have just finished Pearl of China by Anchee Min.
This is a novel but there is no attempt to disguise that fact that it presents itself as a biography of the real Pearl Buck told by an imagined Chinese friend Willow. Certain facts of Buck’s life as portrayed in the book are undoubtedly true. She grew up in China because her father was an American missionary there trying to convert the Chinese from Buddhism to Christianity. She married an American agriculturist who came to China trying to teach poor peasants who had farmed the land for centuries the ways of Western agriculture. She gave birth to a severely handicapped daughter. She was twice driven out of China, first by the Boxer Rebellion and finally by the Nationalists when she was in her 40’s. (Questions: Does the fact that this book is presented as a novel remove any legal issues for the author? What if the portrayal were unflattering and factually inaccurate? What if Buck were still alive?)
Before leaving China for good, Buck had already started to find her escape and strength through writing, first by contributing articles under assumed male names to Chinese newspapers (the Chinese were not likely to accept the opinions of a blond female Westerner) and then essays and stories to publications outside China about what life was really like in the Orient for the greater number of Chinese people. All of that takes place in the first half of the book. The second half is really Willow’s story as she remains in China during the Communist struggle and the Cultural Revolution.
Min’s descriptions of life in China are vivid and detailed especially when it comes to weddings and funerals. The internal political struggles, the repression of Mao’s regime, the intrigues of Madame Mao are just as fascinating as Buck’s early life. A perfect follow-up has to be Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling, a non-fiction account of Buck’s life during the same period. And, of course, The Good Earth itself.