Off North Road
My granddaughter Gabriella presented me with a gift last week. She bought a brand-new paperback at a book fair, wrapped it nicely with colored paper and ribbon and presented it to me on a visit in Chilmark. She turned inside out with satisfaction and shyness as I gave her a great huge hug. To my surprise, the gift turned out to be "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck, published in 1931 by Richard Day, and reissued by Pocketbooks, a division of Simon and Schuster, in 1994. Buck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. As anyone who went to late grammar school and junior high school in 1930s America must surely know, Pearl S. Buck seemed to be the only source of anything we ever learned about China and its enormous population either inside school or out. For this reason I had remembered her and the almost reverential attitude our teachers held for her. She was born of missionaries in 1892, while her parents were home on leave in West Virginia, and she was brought to China at the age of three months. There she lived for the major portion of her life except for attending college in the United States. She lived among the farmers and poor small-town people of rural China and came to know them and write widely about them from her own experience. Peter Conn, who writes the introduction to the present issue of "The Good Earth," tells how her voice became the first source of realistically intimate information about life in that enormous country. While she wrote fictional accounts, her stories told of the lives of common, ordinary folk in rural China. Her literary perspectives were free from the archetypical cartoon quality of the "mysterious Oriental," who was often pictured as backward, cruel, addicted to opium, villainous, and heathen. She lived through the increasingly unstable and dangerous times of pre-revolution China and experienced some narrow escapes as those perilous days progressed. She eventually sought refuge in her native America and lived out her life in an old family home in Vermont.
"The Good Earth," hardly documentary non-fiction, is a "character" novel set in rural China and tells the story of a poor peasant man Wang Lung and his ex-slave wife O-lan.
Wang Lung held his land as the central and most important factor in his life. His ancestry and national culture reinforced and fed his almost religious zeal in the fact of his owning a piece of the good earth. Buck sold millions of books and wrote many other novels, none as explosive on the literary scene as her first, but all of which continued bringing her comfortable wealth, fame, and notoriety for the rest of her long life.
I am now reading "The Good Earth" for the first time and I can't escape the impression that China continues to be an enigma for many of us, three generations later from the time we were hearing a "new" story about what Conn calls the real truth of China's people. In many ways, as that nation now in the 21st century accelerates her rise in power and particularly her economic power, she continues to show us another face and finds herself the object of our highest international interest, fear, and distrust. My grandchildren may find the answers to their life goals of work and education in the Far East and the re-awakened giant of China. The Boston Globe of Feb. 27, reports that the Massachusetts Board of Education is poised to approve the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School where even math, science, and history will be taught in Mandarin. The youngest children who learn new language most easily will be immersed in Chinese 75 percent of the time. As they move on in grade, they will be immersed in from one-half to one-quarter the time. They will learn to write as well as speak the language. The school district includes the city of Springfield. Conn reports that many of the area residents have increasing interest in China. Interest comes not only from parents who have adopted Chinese children and want them to learn their native language and about their cultural and national origins, but also from significant numbers of residents in Massachusetts who are already involved culturally, financially, and work in China at the present. They see the need for much greater contact between Chinese and Americans. The Globe reports Jean Pau Wilson, a parent from Easthampton and one of the school's organizers: "In the future, no matter what path you choose, you're going to see Chinese people, and ... know that language [Chinese] is important." I wonder how much Gabriella's fourth-grade class has discussed China, how much news she has absorbed about the rising power of China worldwide. I will guess that her ready knowledge is a thousand-fold above what mine was at nine years of age and I'll wager my grandchildren will become as familiar with the Far East in their lives as most Americans have become with Europe and South America in our generation. Waking up to the alarming news on this morning's television about a 500-point drop in the New York Stock Exchange, thought to be triggered by a similarly profound drop in the Chinese markets of the same day, raised the short hairs on the back of my neck. I must caution Gabriella to be careful how much "new" material she gives me to absorb in any short span of time. Although much of the mystery of the Orient's past exists and many Americans cling to the romance of the gilded-life and other colorful recollections they retain of the past, China has now moved into the forefront of the world as we know it today.