Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book #14: The Good Earth

The main character is Chinese, a man, and a farmer.  I'm not a pre-revolutionary Chinese man, so maybe I don't know any better, but nothing about the main character's voice in this book "felt" authentic. The world that Pearl Buck created seemed solid and tactile enough, but so many of her characters lacked flesh and realism. Their plights were real but they seemed like cold pieces of colorful construction paper hastily pasted onto a beautiful oil panting. There were some instances where she did manage to bring the character's culture to life. One was, surprisingly, with foot binding.

She took a universally detested practice and made it seem culturally acceptable (which it was at the time of the book's setting). While there is a solid historical argument that foot binding was done to cripple women in order to render them reliant on their male relatives, it was very interesting to see that some of the women in the book saw it as a mark of honor to have their bones methodically broken week after week and shaped into tiny little deformed "lotus" feet. I set the book aside briefly to read more about the practice and found just as many women who were proud of their tiny feet as I found women who felt subjugated by it. (Peek here for a quick read on the topic and a graphic photo of a bare foot  "China's "lotus feet" women crippled for beauty")

However, when it came to the complex and parasitic relationship between family members, she completely lost me. If my father was trying to steal food from the mouths of my children, I might have to rethink my entire relationship with him and his right to go on living on this earth. What man would put himself ahead of his starving grandchildren? Okay, I suppose one could argue that children of that era were delicate beings whose lives were not guaranteed. Children died so frequently and easily that it would be foolish to sacrifice a reasonably healthy adult for their sake. But Pearl Buck never made this argument on behalf of her characters. There was a brief moment where the father seems to go from seeing his daughter as a mewing creature to seeing her as a, you know, daughter. That was a hint that in his world, children aren't immediately born human. Maybe I was sleepy while reading this and just wanted the point to be driven a little harder for laziness' sake. Or maybe I just REALLY hated the grandfather.

The one thing this book did do very well was make me terrified for my children's safety and livelihood. The world in "The Good Earth" was so UNSTABLE. Pearl Buck did a helluva job in showing just how quickly a family can go from thriving landowners to urban street beggars just by falling into one piece of bad luck. Hunger, career hookers, children being sold into slavery, a revolution in the background, childbirth, concubines, and landowning made for a crash course lesson in why I am very happy to live in my world and not in theirs. I am sure this book resonated wonderfully with its Depression Era readers in America, some of whom might have actually felt better knowing that somewhere someone had it worse off than them. Those Americans who were truly the worst off didn't have time (or a place) to curl up with this book, but even those who were relatively comfortable during the 30s definitely could relate to the panic that drove the main character to turn into a money-hungry capitalist machine. These weren't poor people who became more poor. These were solid multi-generational land owning families who were reduced to true starvation (not that silly 1st world "omg I'm STARVING!" stuff) and crippling poverty. The unexpectedness of that combined with the stark plausibility of it makes for one terrifying story line. And yet even in all of that, the characters' fear and panic still seemed staged and flat. Very disappointing in an otherwise interesting book.

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