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.
I’m completing a personal project of reading all–or at least some of all–of the One Book One Lincoln nominees. As I’ve stated before, I’m enjoying the reading immensely. These are excellent books. They tell fascinating stories. I find it very interesting that all five of the titles, fiction as well as nonfiction, are based on actual events. I think it’s fair to say that all five books grew out of the author’s fascination with a particular story that actually happened. They wanted to tell the story.
I became intrigued by what each author said about why he/she wrote.
Of “What is the What,” Dave Eggers said of Valentino Achak Deng, “He had been pushed, ignored, disrespected. And each time he would think, silently, “If only that person knew what I’d already been through …” He would direct his thoughts to whoever had treated him less than humanely, and hope for a day when his story was known far and wide, and that perhaps then his sufferings small and great would end. ”
Robert Hicks, who wrote “Widow of the South” said in an interview, “That was the kind of story I wanted to tell — how epic circumstances would transform the characters of the story as the characters, themselves, transformed each other.”
Of writing in general, James McBride, the author of “The Color of Water,” said this in an interview, “If you’re not going to say anything to people that gets them through the day and comes from your heart and has some kind of spirituality, you shouldn’t do this. You have to live honestly. When I run out of good things to say to people, that’s when I’ll stop writing.”
The comments that Geraldine Brooks made regarding “People of the Book” echo the sentiments that Hicks described, when she said, “I think it’s no coincidence that all three of my novels basically are about how people act in a time of catastrophe. Do they go to their best self or their worst self? That’s a question that hasn’t stopped intriguing me, exploring how people are when they’re confronted with the choice of who to be in a hard time.”
Similarly, when Candice Millard spoke about “The River of Doubt,” she said, “The more I learned about this expedition, the more fascinated I became. I knew very quickly that this was a story I wanted to tell…For me, what was most interesting about this expedition was the opportunity to get a very intimate picture of Roosevelt, to see him simply as a man – a leader not on the scale of nations and armies but among this small group of men who are fighting for their lives. What was striking on this expedition was Roosevelt’s unshakable devotion to his men and to his principles. Even when he was so sick he could barely lift his head from his rusting cot, Roosevelt was concerned about the other men in the expedition and did what he could to help them. He tried to give them what little food he had, and he was willing to take his own life so that his physical weakness would not endanger their lives. Roosevelt showed remarkable strength of character on this expedition, and every man who survived it admired him deeply.”
Since I gathered up these author’s observations about their writing, my thoughts have returned several times to authors’ fascination with certain stories, and our own response as readers. As a reading geek, I love knowing what’s behind a book.
I applaud the One Book One Lincoln selection committee for choosing these compelling stories. No wonder the authors felt so inspired to write them. I’m eager to learn how readers respond.