The Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize (1932) winning novel and the influential factor in gaining her the Nobel Prize for Literature (1938), The Good Earth, is that book which an avid reader has to read quintessentially.
Set in the period of war and conflict in China (The Xinhai Revolution, to be precise), this book gives you a peek into a lifestyle that was; the one people have revolted against for ages to be eradicated. The story starts with an introduction of our protagonist, Wang Lung, who is going to seek the hand of O-lan, a diligent slave in the wealthy family of the village, for marriage. Wang Lung is a rather poor farmer, but his devotion to his land is unmatched and there lies the central theme of the story which is also highlighted by the title of the book. “There was(/is) always the land.”
After their marriage, Wang Lung’s life becomes easier, thanks to his ever-helping wife. She not just manages his home and takes care of his elderly father, but also lends him a helping hand on his farm. She goes on to show her usefulness without expecting anything in return. Through all their adversities, she stands by him and his family like a pillar, and in all the successes of Wang Lung, she had a major role to play. Yet her contribution goes unrecognized until it’s very late.
The family suffers through a severe famine and moves to the city, but Wang Lung’s love for his land brings him back to it. The one thing that is visible throughout the story is how Wang Lung never gave up on his land, no matter what. Even through his harsh days, the land kept him going. “Then the land did again its healing work and the sun shone on him and healed him and the warm winds of summer wrapped him about with peace.”
Pearl S. Buck manages to give us a taste of many different elements of culture and life, in general, via this one book. Racial prejudice, capitalistic ideals, religious fundamentalism, gender oppression, sexual repression, concubinage, and discrimination against the disabled are the supporting themes of the book. There’s also a mention of the Chinese custom of Foot Binding (“the “lotus feet”) for women, which, back in the day, showed the status of a family.
The expressions used by the author are, I believe, the “deal sealer” in making this book a one-of-a-kind one. While the simplicity of the narration is where the beauty of the book lies, Buck doesn’t compromise on the minute details which she brings to light with the use of very convenient imagery. For instance,
“And as they thought day after day on all those matters and talked of them in twilight, and above all as day after day their labour brought in no allied wage, there arose in the hearts of the young and the strong a tide as irresistible as the tide of the river, swollen with winter snows- the tide of the fullness of savage desire.”
While this is not the kind of book which will draw you in immediately, it certainly is the one which won’t bore you at any point either. You won’t be instantly drawn to it, but you shall be eventually. While I couldn’t get enough quote-worthy lines from the book, I did enjoy reading this book for the simple ways in which it made me think. The last line of the book especially propped up a question for me on which I’m debating with myself till date. 🙂
While there’s a mention of a number of dishes in the book, the two that have underlining importance are the cakes O-lan prepares for the Hwang family and the boiled rice, which is a staple in most Asian countries. All the dishes that are talked about in the book are the ones most kitchens around the world are familiar with.
The importance of the cakes and rice lies in the fact that it goes on to speak of the different times the family of Wang Lung has seen. Through their tough times, they could manage to get only a bowl of boiled rice per person a day, which was enough for them after the famine they suffered through. The famine saw them exhausted of all their resources (since the protagonist is a farmer, his stocks of his farm’s rice and corn are his main resources).
The cakes O-lan prepares for the Hwang family, on the other hand, are the ones the kids of O-lan aren’t even allowed to touch during their poverty-stricken days. However, it is only a matter of time that they become the most influential family of the village replacing the Hwang family and such delicacies become commonplace preparations at their home.
Hence, it’d be safe to say that the food mentioned in the book has more of a symbolic significance than a taste bud-appealing one.
Do give it a read if you’re looking for a light read! 😀