Over the holiday break, I read “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. How had I lived so long without reading it?
I enjoyed it immensely, this story of a Chinese farmer in pre-revolutionary China.
The novel opens with the wedding day of Wang Lung. His bride is a slave in a rich household. She is all that a man of his small means can afford. O-Lan turns out to be a faithful and hardworking wife. Her dreams parallel those of Wang Lung, to have sons, to farm successfully, to acquire land and wealth.
The story is told from Wang Lung’s view. Although his fortunes rise and fall, he ends up on top, owning vast amounts of land. He has three sons. He takes on a beautiful second wife, a former prostitute.
When his life goes wrong or awry, he realizes that to return to an even keel, he must return to the land.
The novel closes with Wang Lung telling his sons that the land must remain with them…and their conspiratorial glance indicates their other intentions.
Hillary Spurling, in her biography of Pearl Buck, “Pearl Buck in China,” points to Buck’s profound respect for Chinese people, especially the rural peasants, as the foundation of this book’s success. Buck’s familiarity with Chinese speech is clear in the rhythm of the words. At the time of the writing, Buck’s willingness to talk about sexuality was startling–I barely noticed it.
I was struck by Wang Lung’s seeming disregard for O-Lan. Buck does so well with presenting his point of view about her, and about women and girls generally. I wanted to hate him for his point of view, but Buck places him in the context of his time and place. She led me to take a less judgmental view. I see that I got a clearer view through her telling than I would have from my own 21st century viewfinder.
Why does this book remain popular? I have talked to so many people who love this book, who have re-read it many times. I see its appeal in the simplicity of the telling, mixed with the rhythm of the language.
“So many books, so little time.” How DO we decide when to go back and pick up a book that we “should” have read long ago? I confess–there are remarkable holes in my reading history. I’d hate to even start a list of what I should have read, but haven’t. In this case, I feel a rewarding sense of having filled a gap. I enjoyed the story and I have a better sense of everyday Chinese people before the Revolution. And I appreciate my new familiarity with a book that in so many ways made literary history.
I was in the midst of reading “Columbine” by Dave Cullen as I read my way through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a good book, but intense. After a nightmare involving a Columbine-like incident at the Omaha Public Library (remember, just a dream!), I realized that I needed a break. So I took home “The Vagrants.”
It wasn’t that much of a break.
Here’s what I wrote in a review in Visual Bookshelf:
“I chose this book because it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I expect that many people would consider it depressing–I found it so, too.
Li weaves together the lives of several people in the [fictional Chinese] town of Muddy River in the late 1970’s. Widespread poverty, the sense of lingering loss from the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing scheming to get ahead without getting caught, combine to destroy trust and love…or maybe trust and love don’t exist much here. It feels like nobody has a haven, either in a place, or in a person’s arms.
And I think that’s the author’s point…that things became so crazy in China that the bonds that hold people together in the best ways, through family, friendships, and rewarding work, are broken. And “The Vagrants” leads us to face the dismal result. Not an easy read, but sometimes we ought to face and recognize evil.”
What I’d add to that is that Li does a wonderful job of introducing a cast of characters, and then interweaving their lives. These aren’t necessarily people that we’ll come to love and trust and hope the best for, but they are distinct individuals, well-drawn. She reveals their particular vulnerabilities, and we learn how they’ll suffer for them.
I’d recommend this to readers who are interested in China, especially on the impact of recent politics there, who love a novel with interweaving plots, and who don’t insist on a happy ending.
Just today, I returned a library copy of “The Snakehead: an Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream” by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s yet another of this year’s American Library Association’s Notable Books.
I appreciate how the Notables list introduces me to a wide variety of nonfiction. “The Snakehead” is about human smuggling, specifically the smuggling of people from China to the United States. The story begins with a description of a ship running aground off of the Rockaway Peninsula in 1993. The police officers who spot the ship hear screams, and realize that its passengers are jumping into the ocean. The ship, the Golden Venture, is engaged in smuggling over 300 people into the United States. It’s just a tip of the iceberg of human smuggling detailed in this book. Keefe focuses on a group of smugglers from Fujian Province in China, operating primarily out of New York’s Chinatown. In particular, he follows the career of a woman known as Sister Ping.
Sister Ping runs a business in Chinatown and considers herself a pillar of the community. But it’s impossible to be engaged in this kind of smuggling without being involved in some remarkably dangerous relationships with gangs and the underworld. U.S. law enforcement must wait a long time to pull together the information to convict her.
Although primarily the story of SIster Ping, the book broadens in scope to include how political angles such as China’s population policies September 11 impact the destiny of people entering the United States illegally. Keefe also explores the international scope of smuggling, showing how just one country that doesn’t enforce immigration and identity laws allows human smuggling to around the world. Behind all of this is a sense that people are willing to sacrifice mightily to enter our country.
I began the book feeling a strong sense of story here, but as I progressed, I felt that Keefe lost the plot thread of Sister Ping. Had he been able to sustain that narrative, the book would have enjoyed a stronger sense of story. As it is, it’s a perfectly acceptable nonfiction book on a topic of interest.
I happened to be reading the novel, “Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon at the same time I was reading this. I’m often surprised by the connections among otherwise unrelated titles. Both of these books revolve around people who use multiple identities. Both raise the question of what we’re willing to give up in order to thwart the law, and the degree to which we’re willing to sacrifice friends and family in the process.
I’d recommend “Snakehead” to people interested in China and to those interested generally in politics and current events.
A few days ago, I finished “China Road” by Rob Gifford.
I chose it because Gifford will be in town this spring for one of the EN Thompson Forum speeches at the Lied Center, because Gifford’s a reporter for NPR, which I love, and because I’ve had an ongoing interest in China.
Gifford uses the device of traveling China’s Route 312 from east to west, from cities to rural areas, from prosperity to poverty. Along the way, he talks with many people and takes a few chances to get a good story.
What Gifford does especially well is let the Chinese people speak for themselves. Of course, it’s the reporter’s gift to ask the questions that inspire interesting answers.
I was especially intrigued by his chapter, “The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” The intersection of this cultural treasure with spies and treasure hunters in the early 20th century illustrates many of the issues of how China has interacted with the rest of the world.
What the book seemed to lack, due to its structure, was a sense of getting to know anyone, or any place, very deeply. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but it an outcome of the book’s structure.
Looking back on this one, what I’ll recall is that China is changing quickly, that it’s big and will have a huge impact on our planet, and that China has a compelling history that is huge. Pieces of that history are seen in each individual that Gifford encounters on Route 312.
I’m glad that I read this book before I hear Gifford speak. I recommend it to others who intend to attend the forum, to people interested in China, and to NPR fans.