The Good Earth is the first book in the trilogy by the same name and is followed by Sons and A House Divided. I have only read the first book so I can’t talk about the series as a whole. Written by Pearl S Buck, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Pearl was an American writer who spent most of her life before 1932 in China. As the daughter of missionaries, Pearl had an advantage to observe rural life in China in the early 20th century. Pearl S Buck wrote more than 100 works of literature but it was this book that won her the coveted Pulitzer. In fact, she was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
I wish I had come across The Good Earth a little early on in life. Over the years I have read so many from the same genre that this one feels repetitive. However, before forming any kind of judgement about the book, I have to remind myself that this piece of fiction was written in 1931 and here I am reading it after almost 90 years – let that sink in! As I take in this slightly different perspective, it is easy to see why The Good Earth was deserving of a Pulitzer. It was perhaps the first book that gave a glimpse into the Chinese village-life with such ease. It addressed the divide in gender and social standings, and more importantly the fickle nature of humans which is omnipresent irrespective of the culture, era and country of birth. In short, it was a book ahead of its time.
The Good Earth introduces the reader to Wang Lung, an impoverished farmer and a self-righteous man who dutifully looks after his old father and tends to his small piece of land – his world revolves around serving them both. He is eager to collect his wife from the house of slaves, who will take over the household chores and tend to his father. As is the case with families devoid of money, marriage to Wang Lung was more of convenience than love. The book describes Wang Lung’s wife O-lan as ugly with plain and sallow features – an ideal candidate to be his partner in life’s ordeals, because a ‘pretty wife will have too many airs’. These not so subtle remarks are found throughout the book. After the first few times, I stopped noticing them. But I believe the author was just doing her work to reflect the mindset of the society. Anyways, contrary to what Wang Lung feels, O-lan is more than just a ‘house-maid’ and proves to be a formidable and hardworking partner for Wang Lung. She was perhaps the best version of Wang Lung himself. Her resilience and practicality to handle the unexpected twists and turns life threw at them was remarkable. Even though Wang Lung was the central character, but it was O-lan that stood out for me. She dedicatedly upheld her duties to expand the Lung family, while always looking after her husband and ensuring his needs were met. If you think about it, a century later not much has changed, has it?
There were a few elements that really stood out for me while reading The Good Earth. Firstly, throughout the book, women are showcased as use and throw. In fact, the Lung family’s own daughter was referred to as a ‘slave’ by her parents. At one time, they had even considered selling her off for a few extra silver pieces. This was conveyed as a matter-of-fact with no remorse or regret. Secondly, the love for his land ran deep in Wang Lung’s heart and soul. He was a man who was completely dedicated to his fields. His passion towards farming eventually led him to prosper. The author has conveyed this emotion of returning-to-the-roots beautifully throughout the book.
I read The Good Earth as part of my Kindle Unlimited subscription. After starting and giving up on Imperial Woman, another book by Pearl S Buck, I came across The Good Earth. I would definitely recommend it to those who are new to reading – It is very comfortable to read and gives a glimpse of another life and a different culture. By the end, it’s a tad bit too long, but it is understandable since the author was only setting up base for the following books.
The Good Earth is a journey of hardships and rewards, of social stature and expectations, of family honour and personal desires, and ultimately it is a story of the circle of life. The setting is relatable and not very different from other countries in the Asian belt, India included. While reading The Good Earth I found a lot of similarities with Pachinko, a fantastic book by Min Jin Lee. Pachinko is a 490-page novel that encapsulates a family’s journey from Korea to Japan and manages to include the story of four-generations. The Good Earth too has several generations, but it also has two equally lengthy books to follow. Maybe in the future I find it interesting to finish the trilogy, but for now this is it for me.