“The Good Earth” is a story that takes place probably at the beginning of the 20th century in China. Wang Lung is a poor Chinese peasant living with his ailing father. He just scraped barely enough money together to buy himself a wife, a former slave in a rich household, named O-Lan. She turns out to be a good woman, a hard worker. They work on his small piece of land and O-Lan gives birth to two boys while Wang Lung dreams of being able to buy more land some day so that they can have a better life. But then a drought strikes, locust swarms hit and the family falls on hard times. O-Lan kills their new baby girl right after birth to spare her from a life of hunger. They sell everything but the house and land and move to a larger city where they survive on cheap meals and begging (and some theft). Some time later, during a wave of riots, both Wang Lung and O-Lan come across surprising riches – Wang Lung accepts money from a rich man begging him to protect him from an angry mob and O-Lan discovers hidden jewels in an abandoned house. This enables the family to return to the village and re-establish their farm after the drought. They are even able to buy more land and the next years life gets better and better.
Until… Wang Lung decides that he is now rich and rich farmers spend money on good clothes and visit tea houses where young girls entertain the men. He falls in love with a beautiful concubine and takes her home. O-Lan is hurt but does not complain. Soon she gets sick and dies. Wang Lung grieves and realizes how much she meant to him, too late. He also realizes that nobody else in his family truly respects him. His sons are plotting the sell the farm that he is so proud of so that they can be even richer. A shame because the land is, in Wang Lung’s eyes, the one good thing to fight and live for. He has always trusted that the land will eventually pay back for all his hard work, although in the beginning of the story that is uncertain.
In truth, the reason why the family is able to go back to the village is because they ran into some lucky breaks and came across a lot of money, not because of honest, hard work. They did put that hard work into the land once they returned to it, and were able to prosper from then on, but that’s not really the same is it? The book also seems to maintain that as long as you maintain your connection to the land, you remain a (mostly) good person. The sons who go to school and become estranged from the land turn out to be greedy bad apples. But even Wang Lung in his later years becomes shallow. He goes to the tea house and brings home a concubine because he believes that is what men in his status do, but as death approaches, his focus returns to the land and what it stands for.
I liked reading this book for the most part. In the beginning I was worried that this would be a depressing story, but it is well written and the ups and downs of Wang Lung’s life are always interesting. O-Lan’s selfless characterization of subservient wife, mother, and worker can get frustrating for our modern-day sensibilities, but is the authentic ideal of the times. In a way one could envy her for being so centered and pragmatic, but it would have been nice to hear her take on things every once in a while instead of just hearing Wang Lung’s thoughts.
Something else that I felt uncertain about is that we have another white/caucasian author writing about experiences in a different culture/ethnicity. This perspective, when it occurs with the American literature, is often challenged, examples are right here in the Pulitzer books (Laughing Boy, Scarlet Sister Mary), so how about writing from the point of view of a completely different country/culture? Granted, Pearl Buck spent a long time in China and the book seems authentic enough based on what I know, but it would be interesting to hear from Chinese readers on what they thought about the “Good Earth.”