The Good Earth
by Pearl S. Buck
1932 Pulitzer Prize
4 stars - excellent
Poor Wang Lung. Sheesh. What doesn't happen to him? Family troubles, feast, famine, death, life, you name it.
Certainly a curious choice for the Pulitzer Prize because even though the author is American, she spent most of her life in China and the novel is about life in the Chinese countryside. That's OK. People are people, right?
So here comes Wang Lung and the book opens on his wedding day. He's just a poor farmer so the best he can hope for in a wife is to have a marriage arranged with a slave from the local estate of a rich land baron. His wife, O-lan, turns out to be quite a catch. She takes care of Wang Lung and his aging father and toils in the fields side by side with her husband right up to the moment of the birth of her first child. Then she just excuses herself from the fields, drops the baby, and is right back to work. No maternity leave for her.
The setup is extreme poverty next to extreme wealth and nobody cares much for the rich folk. But Wang Lung is shrewd and he buys up whatever land he can and does well until the famine strikes and he and his family are forced south to live however they can until the bounty of the land returns and they are back to farming.
I learned a lot about Chinese culture from the book. Let me tell you, you so don't want to have been a woman in China during the early twentieth century. For real. Unless you were born rich, you would more often than not wind up being sold as a slave. The eldest daughters usually had their feet bound to make them desirable mates for some lucky chap. Foot binding. Ugh. Look it up. The bones in the feet were actually broken and usually it was done by a third party as mothers were considered too soft and they would not bind the feet of their toddlers tightly enough to deform them into the proper shape. Ew.
I found the second half of the book very satisfying in that it reinforced a notion that I have had for some time. That being that most poor people would be just as greedy and narcissistic as the rich people they despise if you give them a big bag of cash. And so it happens for Wang Lung who prospers to the point where he can afford a second wife and to move into the palace where he bought his first wife.
Sure, he had problems when he was poor, but he really has problems when he is rich and they just pile on top of each other and compound and he realizes too late, in some instances, what is important.
Stylistically, the book echos the nature of the characters. They are up front, no nonsense folk with strong family values who do whatever is in front of them without too much complaint. Life is what it is and better to deal with it than to cry about it.
It's hard to imagine not liking the book. Heck, it was on Oprah Winfrey's reading list.