He was ashamed to say aloud that he wished the house to look neat on this day. The hole was barely large enough to admit his hand and he thrust it out to feel of the air. A small soft wind blew gently from the east, a wind mild and murmurous and full of rain. It was a good omen. The fields needed rain for fruition. There would be no rain this day, but within a few days, if this wind continued, there would be water. It was good. Yesterday he had said to his father that if this brazen, glittering sunshine continued, the wheat could not fill in the ear. Now it was as if Heaven had chosen this day to wish him well. Earth would bear fruit.
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck‘s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a Chinese farmer’s life, opens with an extended description of Wang Lung’s preparations on his wedding day. He is a humble farmer, living alone with his aging father, working the land with his ox. He is being wed to a slave from the local estate. His father tells him that he will get for him a good woman, though not beautiful. Wang Lung asks only that she not be pock-marked and that she not have a cleft lip. As the story unfolds, we watch the development of their relationship as they face the challenges of rural life.
Central to Wang Lung’s character is his love of the land–his sense of it’s preciousness as a resource and as a means of remaining connected to his values. As social and financial pressures come to bear, and as disaster or good fortune alter the course of his family’s journey, this connection to the land is often critical to the family’s physical and moral survival. From the book’s early pages, we learn that pride and vanity may be a source of peril for Wang Lung, but we also see his basic decency, industriousness, and loyalty. Buck paints a portrait of a flawed man who nonetheless is worthy of much affection and respect.
The other characters in the novel, Wang Lung’s family and neighbors, are well-crafted and memorable, growing in depth as the novel progresses. The portrait of rural Chinese life prior to the Communist revolution is fascinating. The vision of the sharply divided gender hierarchy is hard for a modern reader to accept–children are either sons, in which case they are prized, or slaves, in which case they are as likely to be sold off to a wealthier neighbor as to be married off with a dowry. When drought comes, its devastation is dramatically illustrated as the people of the countryside become more and more desperate when crops die and supplies are gradually exhausted. People’s most basic character strengths and weaknesses come to the fore. This is a book about ingenuity, perseverance, and courage, about pride, vanity, and jealousy, but also about loyalty and compassion. It moves relatively slowly, in keeping with the slow, steady pace of country life, but is never ponderous. It leaves one with a deep sense of quiet admiration and contentment.
Updated score sheet for the year:
Around the World (goal: 52 total including at least 6 in each of 6 different regions) 4
Asia/Mideast: 2 (Israel, China)
Europe: 1 (England/UK)
Caribbean/Central America/North America: 1 (US)
Around the US (goal: 50 states, DC, and PR): 2 (CA, NY)
1001 Books (goal 52): 3
A to Z challenge (must be completed in order 26 author last names A to Z then 26 titles A to Z–strategy is all!): 3
Authors: Auster, Beinart, Chandler