I had wanted to read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and since my return from China I made it a priority once I got back. The story centres on a peasant farmer, Wang Lung, and his ascents into prosperity and descents into poverty throughout his long life. The story begins as Wang Lung visits a wealthy house in a Chinese city and through a prior arrangement claims his bride, sight unseen. The bride, a slave named O-lan, is obedient, powerfully strong, yet almost silent in her demeanour. My favourite actress, Luise Rainer, won the Academy Award for portraying O-lan in the film adaptation of “The Good Earth” in 1937.
The title refers to the land that Wang Lung farms to sustain him and his family. He eventually buys an additional plot and uses it for profit, selling his surplus crops. He grows wealthy yet no amount of money can make the clouds rain. Drought paralyzes the region where Wang Lung lives with his young family. Money cannot stave off a famine and Wang Lung, O-lan and their children starve. After having read so many stories of the starvation that devastated North Korea in the mid-nineties, I felt pangs of recognition as I read Buck’s accounts of famine in China. When there is no food left to be found, one tries desperate measures to stay alive, eating bark, weeds and finally, the soil, the good earth itself, mixed with water to make a mud soup. The earth can no longer grow crops for Wang Lung yet it ultimately saves him and his family when they must eat it to stay alive. In Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman by Soon Ok Lee, which I read earlier this year, the author tells how she and her fellow prison inmates were so driven by starvation that they ate clay to survive. When neighbours of Wang Lung resort to cannabilism, he resolves to take the risk and travel south to see if conditions are better there.
When he arrives in the southern provinces, Wang Lung is met by countrymen whose Chinese he can barely understand. Wang Lung must work hard by begging and pulling a riksha. The entire family must work, beg and steal to stay alive. When people tell Wang Lung that his return to riches could be as simple as selling his land, he always refuses. Wang Lung vows never to sell his land, the good earth, that is the source of all life.
Even though Wang Lung and his family are no longer starving to death, they are still going to bed hungry and are scraping by on meagre wages. The rich landowners of the city cannot escape the masses of poor peasants who beat down their mansion doors, and Wang Lung and O-lan profit from the riches they exploit or steal when they loot the mansion with the other peasants. His family returns to prosperity and with the new money Wang Lung buys more land and rents it out, eventually becoming a wealthy landowner himself. With so much money Wang Lung can afford to buy a prostitute as a second wife. He retires from hard farmwork, although he never leaves the land either physically or emotionally. Often Wang Lung would stroll barefoot through the rich soil, or roll around in the dirt, to reconnect himself to the land that gave him and his family life.
O-lan is physically a strong character yet emotionally she is tragic. Raised as a slave since girlhood, she does what she is told to do without question, and suffers hardships that are so profound I still find myself feeling forlorn. O-lan is faced with circumstances during the famine that no mother should ever encounter, and Buck renders O-lan emotionless during these episodes. It is the reader who takes on the emotion instead, and the chapters about the famine, as well as O-lan’s perspective in her family’s extreme poverty, will never leave you.
The Good Earth alternates tragedy and happiness in a life cycle that is always tenuous, where one’s station in life is never certain. In spite of Wang Lung’s regained riches, he lives by the animal adage Eat or Be Eaten, as there are plenty of people, including neighbours as well as his own family members, who will do anything to grab a piece of his pie, or take his very life. Wang Lung must always be two steps ahead as well as keep his eyes open in behind for those who would do anything for the slightest scrap of his silver, or the most meagre scrap from his dinner plate.