Pearl Buck in China

Journey to the Good Earth

By Hilary Spurling

Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Charles Desnoyers


Though her name is no longer the household word it once was, Pearl S. Buck arguably did more to make the ordinary people of China visible to Western audiences than any other person in the 20th century.

Her 1930 novel, The Good Earth, was the publishing phenomenon of the decade, unrivaled by any other work save Gone With the Wind, and cemented Buck's position - often against her will - as the chief spokesperson and interpreter of things Chinese in the United States.

In short order, she received the Pulitzer Prize (1932) and the Nobel Prize for literature (1938). Moreover, her position as a woman depicting peasant life in its full, earthy, sexual, and often gruesome character made her unique among her peers. Though scholars have sometimes caviled at her works, and her anticommunist stance put her at odds with Maoist China, her record of literary accomplishment and activism on behalf of children made her a singular presence on the American scene.

Though she authored dozens of other works, to the Depression and World War II generation she always will be firmly identified with the characters of Wang Lung and Ou-lan, painfully wresting a hardscrabble existence from the north Chinese plain in The Good Earth.

It is this landmark work that Hilary Spurling's highly readable and evocative new book takes as its point of departure, tracing its connections to Buck's formative years. Along the way, we discover in vivid terms that her upbringing in China was often as debilitating and dangerous as that of any her characters.

Born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker to missionary parents in 1892, Pearl developed into an inquisitive and self-reliant child. Given the precarious existence of her family, she needed to.

Her father, Absalom, cut a willful and self-righteous figure, constantly censured by his colleagues and harassed by the Chinese, with precious few converts to show for his efforts.

Pearl's mother, Caroline - "Carie" - resigned herself to the primitive conditions occasioned by Absalom's determination to venture ever farther into the Chinese interior.

Partaking of the same barebones existence as their peasant neighbors, and cut off from the mission community by Absalom's individualism, Pearl was raised largely by her Chinese nursemaid. She spoke Chinese before learning English and was 8 before she realized that she was different from her Chinese playmates.

Genuine danger threatened, as well. Western imperialism in China made missionaries targets of mob violence and local discrimination. In 1900, north China was swept by the Boxer Uprising aimed at driving all foreigners from the country. Frightful atrocities were committed against missionaries and their converts, and the Boxers laid siege to the foreign legations in Beijing. The multinational relief force sent to break the siege then killed tens of thousands of Chinese in indiscriminate retaliation. Amid the chaos, the Sydenstrickers narrowly escaped to Shanghai. Absalom himself was beaten and forced to watch as one of his converts was slowly tortured to death.

Sent to the United States, Pearl enrolled in Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, where, despite the exoticism of her Chinese background, she was elected class president in 1913.

Through these years she grew increasingly aware of the two worlds of which she was a product: the China of her youth and affection, and the America that was shaping her as a young adult. The attempt to navigate between these often contradictory worlds and mine the rich veins bordering the imaginary and the real of both would color her career ever after.

It was from here that the vivid folk tales of fox fairies and hungry ghosts would mingle with famine and infanticide, superhuman tenderness and casual brutality. It was here that she developed a real sense of simultaneously possessing an insider's and outsider's perspective on both China and America. It is here, too, that Spurling is at her best, limning these connections in fine detail.

Back in China in 1916, Pearl married John Lossing Buck, a promising young agricultural missionary. Relying more on technical skill than on preaching, Buck and his colleagues sought to connect with China's growing class of intellectuals, scientists, and reformers. For Pearl, however, his absorption in his work and lack of affection took an increasing toll. Turning to writing, she found encouragement in the publication of her novel East Wind, West Wind in 1929. She then decided to deploy the full spectrum of her lived experience in the Chinese hinterland on a subject almost completely unknown to Americans: the harsh quotidian existence of a Chinese peasant family. Along the way she met publisher Richard Walsh, who guided her novel, now called The Good Earth, to its stratospheric heights. In 1935 she finally divorced Buck and married Walsh.

This book is in many ways as dramatic and enjoyable as any of Pearl Buck's novels. Although there is a degree of repetition as Spurling shows how youthful incidents emerge in Buck's mature work, it is well-paced and an excellent summer read. Perhaps most important, as China looms larger and larger on the world horizon, it seems particularly appropriate to reconnect with the first American to depict the Chinese as fully realized human beings.

Charles Desnoyers is director of Asian Studies at La Salle University, and the author of "A Journey to the East: Li Gui's 'A New Account of a Trip Around the Globe.' "