One of my long term reading goals is to get through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction, but Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was on my to-read list since long before my Pulitzer project went into effect. I took my last road trip as an opportunity to finally delve into the audiobook, and I could kick myself for not having read this book sooner.
The Good Earth is set in rural China and follows the arc of Wang Lung’s life. It begins at the turn of the twentieth century with Wang Lung eagerly preparing for the arrival of his soon-to-be wife, O-lan. He and his father are poor farmers who have always kept their heads down and worked hard, living by their means and saving what little they had. Wang Lung’s father has arranged a marriage to a humble woman working as a house slave for a landowner, and O-lan’s arrival brings the hope of future sons and prosperity.
Over the years O-lan does her work dutifully and without complaint, and though their marriage is not one of love, she and Wang Lung treat each other with respect and work as a team. She does backbreaking work in the fields and bears Wang Lung sons, and the small family eventually begins to prosper. Even though they have good fortune, they are careful not to spend it frivolously. The ultimate goal is to buy land, and as they grow more prosperous, Wang Lung sets his sights on buying land from the great house of Hwang, where O-lan once worked as a slave. In his mind, all material objects can be lost, but a man with land will always have secure assets.
As he gains status, working his way up from ignorant peasant to wealthy landowner, Wang Lung’s values also begin to change. No longer is he the humble farmer who thought twice before splurging on the occasional treat, or made decisions based on the vision he had for his family. Instead, he became consumed with buying land that belonged to the once-great house of Hwang, an esteemed family that has since squandered its wealth. Nothing is good enough for him anymore. And amidst all of this drama is the social revolution that China experienced in the 1920s that lead to political upheaval and people leaving drought-stricken rural areas in mass numbers for the city in order to escape famine and extreme poverty. It changes again later with the older generation’s values dying out in favor of the new generation’s goals for the future.
The prose is simplistic but lyrical, capturing a world that in many ways is now long gone. I had been a little apprehensive about Chinese characters and culture being written by a white author, but Buck, who spent most of her life in China, writes everything beautifully (at times dated, but beautifully written nonetheless). I found it riveting, and it’s a book I know I’ll be revisiting in the future.
The Good Earth was published in 1931 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932; it’s the first book in a trilogy. Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.