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Thursday, December 31, 2009

book report: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

I fell in love with Pearl Buck's world because of her magnificent writing from the very beginning. For example, this paragraph transported me to China onto the land of a newly married peasant farmer.


The sun beat down upon them, for it was early summer, and her face was soon dripping with her sweat. Wang Lung had his coat off and his back bare, but she worked with her thin garment covering her shoulders and it grew wet and clung to her like skin. Moving together in a perfect rhythm, without a word, hour afer hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. the earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together - together- producing the fruit of this earth - speechless in their movement together. pp. 29-30, The Good Earth.

The novel celebrates the effect of earth on the main character, Wang Lung. Farming is his life, his savior, his redeemer, his confessor, his god. The opening setting of the novel was so compelling to me. I wanted Wang Lung to succeed in his poverty. I wanted his fields to produce. I wanted his marriage to O-Lan to thrive and his family to grow. Then the drought came. They nearly starved to death before they got on a train heading south where they lived as beggars outside a city's walls. But revolution drew close and Wang Lung brought his family back to his land. Always the land. There he found success again. His household grew again with success as he purchased slaves and hired field hands. He enlarged his earthen walled house. But then, the story turned tragic. In his mid-life idleness, he despised his wife's poor peasant appearance and ended up at the town's brothel. He ends up with a favorite, Lotus, whose petite size enthralls him. He eventually brings her to his home as his concubine. Yuck. I was so disgusted with him. I no longer cared for his success. I preferred his failure. Eventually, his land called him back to sanity, sort of. His addiction to Lotus becomes merely a fancy, though he can't remove her from his house. His wealth keeps increasing, but he is plagued by his obligation to his uncle, a lazy criminal schemer, a leech on his household. His sons insist on his move from the land into the village great house. But there is no peace for him there. Eventually he moves back to the earth walled farm house to live out his last days. But even there he has no peace, because the book ends with him over hearing his sons discussing selling off the land when he dies.

Pearl Buck was raised in China by her American Presbyterian missionary parents and moved back there as an adult, as a missionary herself for 19 years until she was fired for her liberal views, which I will come back to at the end. Her first child was mentally disabled.

The main character of her book, other than the earth itself is the rags to riches farmer, Wang Lung. Like Pearl, his first daughter is mentally disabled, she has no name, except for poor fool. Christian missionaries make one appearance in the story, when Wang Lung is in the southern city and a funny looking man hands him a piece of paper with a picture of a man dying on a cross. But Wang Lung is illiterate and in unable to read the message. He gives the broadside to his wife, O-Lan, so that she may add it to the other papers in their shoe soles.

This story, that so enchanted me in the beginning became a horror story to me. As I reflected Pearl Buck's life, I thought she might be borrowing from the life of King David in the Bible. A life that started out so simply for the shepherd boy, who faced a giant, and a hostile government, who got a wife from the local lord, who eventually moved into the lord's house then took many wives and concubines which caused strife to the point of murder and rape in his household. Like Wang Lung, he had no peace at the end of his life.

I wonder what sort of peace Pearl Buck had at the end of her life. She divorced John Buck and married her publisher in the same year, 1935. She adopted seven children and established an adoption agency so Asian children could be adopted by Americans. She became an humanitarian.

But had she lost her faith?

Why was Pearl fired from her missionary agency? Because of her modernist theological convictions, as summarized in this wiki article.
Notable Presbyterian missionary to China, Pearl S. Buck, now weighed into the debate. In a review published in The Christian Century, she praised the report, saying it should be read by every Christian in America and, ironically mimicking the biblical literalism of the fundamentalists, "I think this is the only book I have ever read that seems to me literally true in its every observation and right in its every conclusion." Then, in a November 1932 speech before a large audience at the Astor Hotel, later published in Harper's, Buck decried gauging the success of missions by the numbers of new church members. Instead she advocated humanitarian efforts to improve the agricultural, educational, medical, and sanitary conditions of the community. She described the typical missionary as "narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant." In the Harpers article along with another in Cosmopolitan published in May 1933, Buck rejected the doctrine of original sin, saying "I believe that most of us start out wanting to do right and to be good. ... We are not often intentionally evil." She asserted that belief in the virgin birth or the divinity of Christ was not an essential prerequisite to being a Christian. Even Christ's historical reality or whether Christianity is the one and only divine truth is irrelevant. She said that the only need is to acknowledge that one can't live without Christ and to reflect that in one's life.
She sounds like someone from today's emergent church tribe, or a typical mainline liberal denomination. Why are we Christians so often either/or instead of both/and. Let us go forth and bring the kingdom of God to people's spirits and bodies in its full, all-encompassing claims. to bring food without truth is no better than the communists or al-Queada. To bring truth with no material assistance is condemned in the epistle of James as an example of one who could not possibly be truthful if the truth did not compel him to action.

Let us be both/and missionaries to our worlds, caring for body and soul. Let us resolve this for the new year.

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