“They cannot take the land from me. The labor of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away.”
Is there a book you read in school (required reading) you just didn’t enjoy at all? The Good Earth was that book for me. I read it in high school and honestly, I hated it (although I can’t remember exactly why, I *might* have a vague idea as I’m writing this). This was the book that made me feel a mental agony ever time I’d see it somewhere. However, about 10 years ago, my book club chose The Good Earth for one of our discussions. I sighed deeply and resolved to welcome Pearl S. Buck back into my life; I reluctantly read the book again.
Was it the same dreadful experience as before? Absolutely not! My perspective as an adult was so much different than my teenage self. I wondered how I missed so much I seemed to have forgotten about completely? I had a strong desire to track down one of my literature teachers to express my gratitude and appreciation for requiring me to read this book although my teenage self felt completely opposite.
Fast forward to present day and here I am, a person who would readily recommend this book to anyone. Winner of the Pultizer Prize in 1932, The Good Earth follows poor farmer, Wang Lung, as he works his land to feed and care for his family. He marries a plain hardworking slave woman, O-lan, from the great House of Hwang. She’s industrious with a quiet nature and soon O-lan and Wang fall into the rhythm of married life as poor farmers. O-lan cares for Wang’s aging father, keeps the house, and works by his side on the land, even shortly after giving birth to their children.
I think one reason I didn’t like the book initially is because of how Wang treated O-lan. O-lan advised Wang to buy some land from the master of the House of Hwang as she observed the financial difficulties the great house faced. When the Lung family flees to the south due to famine and drought, it’s O-lan who advises each person in the family of what they need to do to survive. After a riot, O-lan’s discerning eye makes way for another opportunity for the family, shortly afterwards, they return home.
After reading this book for a third time, I’ve learned something else I might have missed the first few times. O-lan wasn’t perfect, but she was a person I really admired. I believe my frustration was with Wang’s attitude; from simple humble farmer to haughty wealthy landowner. He completely changes and seems as if he looses his mind. His capacity for sympathy and empathy was replaced with selfishness as his wealth increased and the way it affects O-lan tears at my heart every time I read this book. What I was able to pay attention to this time around was Wang coming to his senses; Wang remembering who he used to be and the woman who helped him from the very beginning. Although I felt his realization might have been a bit late since the damage was done, I saw his compassion and sincere appreciation, perhaps even remorse towards O-lan before the book concluded. My frustration and anger with him blinded me to the other gems in the book (during my first reading as an inexperienced youngster).
I noticed the generational shift and also a change to modernization. Wang Lung was raised off the land, “The Good Earth”. Wang knew and had firsthand experience with hardwork, hardships, and struggling to survive. With O-lan as his wife and partner eventually they can provide a life for their children so unlike their own. The land represented life, wealth and livelihood, a guarantee of sorts. For Wang’s sons, as they grew older, it represented old ideas and customs since Wang’s sons were modern children, they weren’t interested in the land and what it meant for Wang. Wangs sons had opportunities to become educated, learning to read and write, something Wang saw as important and necessary for his sons to have a better life than himself. His sons didn’t remember much about the famine and their lean years; growing up with a sense of privilege and entitlement, they didn’t value handwork and sacrifice as their father. Although they lived well because of the land, none of them understood what it represented to their father, and why he loved the land. The land was lifeblood to Wang and I was disappointed that none of them had the gumption to learn many important life lessons from their father.
“I have the land still, and it is mine.” – The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
Now that I’ve revisited this book again, I believe it’s now time for me to read the other 2 books in the trilogy, Sons and A House Divided.
Have you read any of Buck’s books; do you have one you highly recommend?