Cannonball Read III: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
One of my favorite books in elementary school was Redwall. I think I heard somewhere that Brian Jacques originally wrote it for blind children. I loved it because of its descriptions of feasts and other food-related activities that the Mossflower residents participated in. I especially enjoyed reading during lunchtime (my parents wouldn’t let me at the dinner table) so that I could shove food down my hole and pretend that instead of a square of school pizza and a carton of sugarmilk, it was Grayling ala Redwall and elderberry wine. I enjoyed The Good Earth in pretty much the same way.
The story is rather simple and short, and the bulk of it is filled by detailed accounts of things Wang Lung (the main character) bought or consumed, often in laundry list format — including prices. This isn’t done to draw in description-fans like me, though, but to highlight how Wang Lung starts his adulthood as a farmer’s son, falls into extreme poverty, only to essentially replace the ruling aristocratic family with his own, all through the careful acquisition and cultivation of land.
This is also one of those books where no one is intellectual or self-examining. All plot points in the story are directly symbolic to the reader, but the characters only interpret matters on an immediate emotional level, allowing you to connect on one or more levels of story-telling that hit at both the head and heart. The character of O-lang, for example is a rough hewn, homely woman, stout and loyal as a farm animal, and regarded by her husband to be equally as simple. When Wang Lung takes for a second wife a kittenish beauty with dainty feet and a bad temper, O-lang tells her daughter that she must bind her feet so that she will be pretty, otherwise her husband will not love her. Wang-Lung hears of this and is moved by his pity for her, but still cannot muster any appreciation for her beyond her dutifulness in bearing him sons and maintaining order in the household.
His lack of devotion to O-lang mirrors his self-perceived loyalty to the land. Wang Lung understands that in order for his land to be productive, he must watch over it and work on it consistently and always treat it with respect, not pushing it to grow more crops than it can handle or to sell it off carelessly, and he does so and he prospers. However he doesn’t comprehend that this also applies to the people around him, and it is at times deliciously frustrating and at times heartbreaking to see him neglect his wife, ignore his sons and coddle his kitty bride.
Another thing I love about the book is that it’s one of those that spans multiple generations. I gravitate towards these types of stories because they feel extremely finished at the end, with nothing left out, like just finishing a big meal. It also reminds me of my mortality, which is always thrilling.
My copy of the novel has a page in the back with a list of comprehension questions. This list annoys me, because it serves as a reminder that the story is supposed to be more than just pretty descriptions of rustic Chinese whatnots, but that is where I mostly gleaned enjoyment from. You would probably like this book if you like to watch costume dramas or your favorite parts of Harry Potter are when they have Christmas Feasts.
This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.
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