Paperback, 379 pages.
Read from May 09 to 18, 2016.
I picked up this gem at a second-hand bookstore in Hong Kong. It’s a book that I’ve always wanted to read and it seemed fitting to read it now that I am living in Asia. While the book itself is fiction, Pearl Buck drew on the experiences of growing up in pre-revolution China to help create the setting in this book. I feel the book is a small reflection of that piece of history but having not read any non-fiction on this area in time, I will not make historical or cultural conclusions off it.
Wang Lung is the son of a poor farmer in post-revolution, north China. He is dedicated to the land and his family. When is comes of age he is sent to marry a slave from the House of Hwang, a woman he has never met before, and begins to start farming his own land. His new wife is O-lan, and while she is comely, she is hard-working, loyal and obedient and gives Wang Lung many sons. Wang Lung is passionate and about the land and invests and takes calculated risk to get more land and feed his family. However his community is hit with a massive drought in which they face starvation and death. Wang Lung reluctantly decides to leave his home and find work in the South of China to save his starving family. After a few years of demoralizing hard work, Wang Lung cannot take being away from the land any longer and takes his growing family home, a move that Wang Lung will find to be very prosperous. When Wang Lung shows mercy to one noble and is rewarded, he begins to rise in the world, even as the House of Hwang falls.
O-lan is the reason I loved this book. While I initially enjoyed Wang Lung, I came to despise him as he became rich for how he treated O-lan. O-lan is unbelievably strong, honest and underappreciated. I can’t imagine the life that she led and how she managed to do it without complaint. She was doing hard labour and cooking for her family the day she gave birth and hours after giving birth! What?! And I bitch about making dinner… It’s horrible to think of how poorly society treated women and the limited choices that they had. I mean, you only have to look up foot-binding on the internet to get an idea of the horrid beauty standards that were expected of women during this time. Sadly, I know it still exists in many places. Even in present day, the focus and importance of having a boy over a girl is still prevalent in Asia. That was the hardest part about reading this book. I was torn on giving it 3 or 4 stars but decided with the later as the book is attempting to be a reflection of the time frame it was written in.
For the short time that Wang Lung was in the South part of China, it hinted to what Hong Kong might have been like during this time as Wang Lung mentioned that the locals spoke a different dialect, presumably Cantonese. Wang Lung also worked a rickshaw and encountered white tourists. I love reading about old school Hong Kong/South China as it’s interesting to see what these areas are like presently now that I’m living here.
The book creates great visuals and provides interesting character development. Watching how Wang Lung grows, adapts, thrives and fails is the highlight of this book, despite him not making the greatest decisions with his wife O-lan. Pearl Buck’s writing is simplistic, elegant and clear. I can see why this novel would have won such a prestigious award in its day. Overall I would recommend that anyone interested in the historical-fiction genre read this book.