So begins the 1932 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. In some respects, the novel looks very familiar—like Laughing Boy, it is an exploration (at least in its opening chapters) of a marriage between two young people who do not entirely understand each other, set in a culture that is foreign but fascinating to the middle-class American reader to whom the novel is seemingly addressed. Regular readers of the blog will remember that I was initially skeptical but ultimately fully won over by Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy, because the author successfully brought to life characters I feared would be presented flat stereotypes.
Because of that success story, I am moderately less concerned about Buck’s novel, but I’ll admit the opening hasn’t really grabbed me. The relationship thus far feels like a culture being observed from without, and Wang Lung’s inner life doesn’t feel as richly conceived as the work La Farge did with Laughing Boy. I’m on the fence about the portrayal of women, since I’m hopeful that Pearl as a woman author is interested in exploring a society this openly hostile to women—certainly the narrative shows us that even the potentially sympathetic main character, Wang Lung, sees his wife as something like a good cow. A nice investment, and you’re pleasantly surprised by how useful she is and how well she’ll breed, but you don’t really envision having a conversation about her feelings. I don’t know yet what Buck will give me, or even what I want, really. I think most of all I want a novel that will not delight in misogyny, but will not skip past it merrily as though it can all be overcome by true love. Whether that’s more than the 1930s can deliver, who can say?
I’m curious about this book, which (unlike many other Pulitzer winners) became a big best-seller and remains a staple of English classes in schools across the country (though I think it’s gradually fading from the scene). I’m curious about Buck, and her experiences in China that drove her to write the novel. Based on my initial read of the first several chapters, I think this one can go quickly if I want it to…we’ll see whether, having read a bit more, I decide I want to skip past it pretty hastily, or whether I want to slow and savor a better novel than the Pulitzers as a whole have led me to expect. Lastly, I’ll mention that I want to think about Asia and America in the context of the 1930s—particularly American attitudes about China (especially in the light of rhetoric about China in 2011). I’m hoping the book provides some opportunities for reflection: we’ll see!