Details: (c) 1931, 1958 Pearl S Buck; Pub Gulf & Western Corporation Pocket Books (some time between 1973 and now); ISBN 0-671-82349-3-250
Verdict: The good earth is a fascinating portrait of the protagonist and his culture.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: We were going through RS' hamper of books she was giving away, and one of her American friends recommended this as an American classic. I'm embarrassed at not having heard of an Anglophone Nobel laureate, though weirdly the book is very big on proclaiming that Buck won the Pulitzer Prize, with the Nobel tucked away as a tiny little afterthought that I might have missed if I hadn't been looking for it.
The really impressive thing about The good earth is that I absolutely believed in Wang Lung, even though he is not at all the sort of protagonist who normally features in literature where the characterization is the point. He's not self-aware, he doesn't think in abstract terms very much, as an illiterate he certainly doesn't situate his experiences within a wider literary and cultural context, it's just stuff that happens to him. tGE really gets inside his head; it is certainly educating the reader about pre-Revolution Chinese culture, but it's doing so extremely subtly, and without ever pointing out things that Wang Lung wouldn't have noticed, or drawing explicit comparisons with a milieu that would be familiar to the reader.
He's also very far from being idealized as a magical primitive. He clearly doesn't regard women as people, and the narrative doesn't evade that at all. I was really touched by the portrait of his marriage to O-Lan, which falls way outside any of the expected Western romantic tropes (even the Orientalist sort). In general, the book is refreshingly free of polemic; certainly, it sucks to be a Chinese peasant and it sucks even more if you are female, but the reader is left to infer the misery of women's lives without ever being told how horribly unfair it was. The oblique and understated mentions of footbinding, for example, I found far more effective than screeds of rant about how evil and misogynist the practice was.
The person who recommended the book to me warned me that it is a little depressing. I didn't find it so; yes, bad things happen in it, but the general shape of it is that Wang Lung attains what in his terms would be success in spite of setbacks. The understated approach to tragedy I found moving rather than depressing. tGE is actually the first of a trilogy, but since it covers Wang Lung's life from his wedding to his death, it makes a nicely complete story. I can imagine that some readers would find it slow, partly because there's little action in the blood and guts and desperate heroics sense, and it doesn't compensate for that with lots of explicit emoting and psychological analysis. Still, it's very short and I was emotionally caught up in the story without being told how I was supposed to react.
Does anyone know of a good biography of Buck? From the blurb she sounds like she must have been a fascinating woman!