I came across “Pearl Buck in China” by Hilary Spurling listed in the New York Times “100 Notable” of the year for 2010. I confess–I haven’t read “The Good Earth.” Yet. After reading this biography, I intend to.
Spurling describes the evolution of Buck as a writer, spending ample time during Buck’s childhood as the daughter of missionaries in China at the turn of the 20th century, detailing the development of her thinking through her time in college and early return to China, describing the impact of Buck’s remarkable success with “The Good Earth” and landing at her final home just before she died in 1973. She tells the story in a readable way, keeping it moving, weaving in important information.
A theme that Spurlling develops here is that because Buck grew up in China, speaking the Chinese of common people and being surrounded by Chinese people, she was able (almost) to think like a Chinese person. That is, even though she was clearly an outsider, she had a sense for how Chinese people thought and reacted. Where other American writers couldn’t quite get past their shock over certain behaviors, Buck wasn’t shocked herself, and could portray the behaviors in ways that made sense to her audience. She fundamentally respected the people about whom she wrote.
Buck came to disagree vehemently with the approach of the missionary community in China.
Spurling addresses some issues that were very similar to some that arose in the library’s recent One Book One Lincoln panel discussion of medical missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. How DO outsiders learn to help? How do they learn to listen? How do they learn to respond in ways that make sense for the culture and situation?
When I reflect on what I will remember about this book, it is really WHO I will remember–Buck’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, an American Presbyterian missionary to China. Spurling’s portrait of this man, his isolating persistence and righteous conviction, his seeming disregard for his family, and his ultimate separation from his work, show how Buck’s vision was shaped.
I will also remember that Buck chose her own way. She divorced her first husband to marry the second. She found a good place for her disable daughter when often disabled children were simply hidden. She lived fairly lavishly toward the end of her life.
I nearly returned this to the library without finishing it, because it was due. I’m glad that I took the time to finish it out–the final fourth of the book is especially interesting.
I’ll recommend this to people who read a lot, who have probably read “The Good Earth.” I’ll also recommend it to people who are generally interested in China, and in the issues that arise when people of very different cultures come together.