My favorite textbooks in middle and high school were those of the English and Kannada languages. Many of the chapters were abridged excerpts from the best literature on the planet. And what a rich bunch of stories and poems those were! One chapter from my English textbook was so evocative that I had tears in my eyes when it was studied and whenever I read it later. It had been an excerpt from The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. That chapter, the book title and the author all came rolling back from childhood memories recently and I simply had to give the book a shot.
The protagonist is Wang Lung, a honest and hard working illiterate farmer living in the North of China in the decades before the Communist Revolution. His is a hard life spent struggling against poverty, famine, floods and conniving relatives. He weds a slave girl, a marriage of convenience to bear children and to help in farming. His hand-to-mouth existence is severely tested due to famine and he is forced to migrate to a big Southern city with his family and to beg and steal to survive. Being a man of the earth, hence the title of the book, he eventually returns back to his village. With hard work and a bit of luck, things finally turn around for our hero as he becomes a rich land owner.
Pearl has great sway with her words and just a few pages in I was already deeply invested in the character of Wang Lung. Some of the hardships that he and his villagers endure is gut-wrenchingly hard, beware there is cannibalism during famine, and I just wished he would come through. The other character who stands out from this book is O-Lan, his hardy wife. Together they are one of the most memorable characters I have ever come across in a book.
What stood out clearly as I read Good Earth was that this was a Biblical tale in its telling. I would not surprised if that is due to Pearl being brought up by Christian missionary parents in China. The tale is essentially that of the cycle of life. Good people are tested by bad experiences. If they remain true to their heart, they emerge out to a sunnier life. Religious texts hold some of our greatest tales and the story of Wang Lung here is in that vein. The culture, customs, religions and village and town life in China at the turn of the 20th century are exceptionally well described in this book. The Good Earth is an epic tale of the human spirit, filled with all of its glory and ugliness.