We read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for book club this month and I loved it. The book can be summed up with one classic phrase from the late, great Notorious B.I.G.: Mo’ money, mo’ problems.
In turn-of-the-century China, Wang Lung is a poor farmer who marries a slave, O-Lan, who has working hands and big, unbound feet. But it is because of O-Lan’s work ethic, resourcefulness and working hands and feet that Wang Lung is able to survive droughts and famine to become a rich landowner. Wang Lung does not appreciate this until the end…after he takes another woman (with beautiful, small features and tiny, bound feet), builds a larger house to accommodate his first family, his lover and his mooching relatives, and realizes he has raised spoiled children because they didn’t have to work for everything as he had.
I think Wang Lung is a good man (in spite of the fact that he followed the traditional rich land owner’s path of having a concubine…) who gets caught up in the human desire for more. It takes him awhile to learn the lesson, but I think as he’s struggling to learn it, he just wants everyone around him to be satisfied, even though this often leads to more unrest among the ungrateful members of his family.
O-Lan is now one of my favorite literary characters. She is such a strong woman who accepts her path in life and makes the most of it. She is so resourceful, stretching small luxuries out so they could be enjoyed longer, conserving even when they are rich enough to be wasteful. In spite of Wang Lung taking a second woman in the home, O-Lan remains devoted to her family, true to her role and wife and mother, but also draws her boundaries clearly. I cannot imagine living at a time when working class women were considered slaves from birth, expected to care for her husband and his family in addition to working in the fields and bearing children alone.
I loved reading this book in the spring as we were starting our garden since so much of the book is centered around the earth and farming. I borrowed an old copy from the library (I think this copy was published in the 1947, the original book was published in 1931) and I am so glad I did because throughout the book, there were wonderful illustrations. I loved seeing Howard Willard’s interpretations of the story (as seen throughout this post).
Have you read The Good Earth or any other books by Pearl Buck? I own her book A Portrait of a Marriage and I’m thinking I need to pull it off the shelf. Are there any other good summer reads I should add to my list?