Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Good Earth

The Good EarthWhen you learn about creative writing one of the first lessons on characterization teaches that characters must be universal--which is just a fancy way of saying that they must be human.

But it's also true that some characters are more human than others, no? How often have I read a book (usually a glorified screenplay) to dismiss the actions of a character with an "No one would ever do that!"

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck demonstrates this quality of writing perfectly and effortlessly (as good writing always does--while in actuality being a huge effort of accomplishment) as it follows the life and trials of Wang Lung, a Chinese peasant in the early 20th century.

Buck ties us to Wang Lung through his human frailties--his desire for success and prestige, his greed and pride--and his sufferings. And while I will never be nor will I ever meet a Chinese peasant plagued with locusts, famine and starvation Wang Lung in many ways is no different than a 21st century executive trying to make it in today's world. That's what is meant by universality.

But while Buck follows the rules of characterization brilliantly there are other things that contradict today's conventional wisdom in book-writing; namely, she has very little dialog. Most editors or creative writing instructors would insist that the majority of a book--if not a full 75%--should be dialog but Wang Lung rarely speaks. He thinks and feels and contemplates but he is a solitary figure, moving about in a lonely setting and says little to those around him but instead of creating cracks in the book's structure and language this only goes to enhance the ties the reader has to Wang Lung. Since he says little to his wife, his father and his children we, the reader, are the beneficiary of his feelings and thoughts and it binds us to him as a shared secret binds two people together.

By the end of the narrative I almost feel as if Wang Lung is my child that I've watched grow up. I met him on his wedding day as he went to the nearby estate to bring home his purchased bride who worked as a slave in the kitchens then followed him as O-Lan bore him children and worked beside him to build his farm into a successful plantation. I stuck with him during his days of starvation and his later days of idleness in prosperity, always wanting him to succeed but feeling little hope as his money ruins him and his family.

Not only is the book beautiful in its language and descriptive quality but it treats each character gently and carefully as if each line and paragraph is another stroke of the brush in the portrait. While Buck's characters are universal, her setting is exotic and fascinating and there's a strange feeling of simultaneous regret and relief that it no longer exists. Regret for lost simplicity and beauty but relief for peasant prejudices and superstitions that went with it.

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11 comments:

liz said...

This has been one of my favorite books since I first read it in high school almost 20 years ago. Many of my perceptions about Chinese culture were, and to an extent still are, based on this book. Great read.

Shauna said...

OK, you've convinced me. Though I put this book down several months ago because I just know things will not end fairly for O-Lan and I feel so bad for her, I will keep going and finish the book. It is very good.

Derek, Rachel and Cadence said...

I read that book too! I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love how real the characters are and how much (like you) I felt a part of the story. But I hate feeling so bad for the characters that are hurt emotionally (his wife). After I finished reading, I kept thinking about her for weeks!

Scribbit said...

I had a hard time with it too--she gets such a raw deal.

But at the same time Wang Lung--by the standards then--was a good husband to her and her life was better than it would have been had she stayed at the kitchen. Which is strange to think about.

There are so many things in the book that are common themes today--the trials of family problems, the corruption of wealth, fidelity in marriage, the infiltration of technology, parent-child relationships--that it's strange that it was written so long ago about a long ago time.

Lara said...

This is one of my favorite books ever. I think I'd put it in my top 5, even. (Sadly, I lent my copy to someone and never got it back before I moved across the country...)

I do think O-Lan gets a raw deal, and it is easy to be so angry with Wang Lung. But that is partly what makes it such a good book.

Great review!

M said...

I have read hundreds of books in my life and this is the ONE book that I can read again and again. Its historical significance aside, really a spectacular read.

Nancy said...

I read this based on a review you did a year or so ago. It is fabulous. I devoured and loved it. It is a book you can go back to time and time again. I'm happy to see you're highlighting it again--it deserves it.

Thanks for the recommendation. Please keep sharing good books to read.

controllingaspicyuniverse said...

I've noticed some of the more recent critically acclaimed novels (for what that's worth) have been more internal and less dialog based. I remember my mother having this book on her bedside shelf for many years...thanks for the nudge - I need to read this.

Sea Star said...

I read this book earlier this year. I actually couldn't put it down. I read it in just two days (which for me is really quick!) When I finished I couldn't read anything else for a number of days after. I just kept thinking about those characters and wondering how to stop that cycle from happening in my life. It is one my shelf to be reread again some time in the future. GREAT READ!

Emily said...

I also recently read this book. Like others, I was left thinking about the characters for weeks. My daughters are from China and Cambodia, so I enjoy reading Asian historical fiction. Another good one, is Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Btw, I would not suggest watching the movie of The Good Earth. I saw it on TV and saw that it had 4 stars, so thought it would be a good follow up to the book. Not at all . . .

Ni Yachen said...

You say you will never meet a Chinese peasant, but one of the most amazing things about the book is how it is still relevant to the Chinese experience even though history has moved on. I have known several people who survived the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and I was amazed how similar their stories were to this book. It is one of the reasons the Chinese love Buck and consider her a national treasure. As for all the comments on O-Lan, another Chinese friend of mine says, "If it has a happy ending, I don't feel like I've gotten my monies worth."