This book came recommended to me from a somewhat surprising source. M’s father, like M himself, is not a big reader. Based on the source of the recommendation, I knew this book could turn out to be one of two things: a trite, easy to read, silly little book or great, well-written, captivating literature.
What I learned is that my father-in-law, despite having read maybe 2 dozen books in his lifetime, is a very discerning reader. He read this book for the first time when he was young, a teenager. He couldn’t put it down, he says. The story grabbed him and held on to him in such a way that it remained absolutely crisp for him even 30 years later. I was only a page in to the beautiful, old, hardcover copy he lent me and I knew exactly what he meant.
Pearl S. Buck manages to present an Eastern culture to a Western world in a way that neither alienates nor misrepresents nor coddles. However, built into her style, there’s a sense of separation of both the reader and the author from the lives of the Chinese farmer. In this sense, this novel would be a fascinating study of Orientalism and the Other. The prose is lofty, formal, creating a gap, an acknowledgement, even, of the impossibility of melding the culture of the main character to the culture of the reader. And yet, there’s this overarching theme that seems to resonate with me and likely resonated with Buck’s 1930’s American audience: as long as you have your land, everything will be Ok. The land provides, protects. It is eternal. It always provides a fresh start, even after the worst of times. Most of all, the land will give you peace.
(I’m not sure if our bit of land will give us that much peace, at least not for a year or so…)
I would highly recommend this book. Buck was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature with it. And my father-in-law is right: it’s a page turner and truly a beautiful piece of literature, at that.
(Oprah picked this book up a couple years ago, so it’s readily available at Chapters. Don’t forget: this book was good before Oprah was Oprah.)