Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book review: "Pearl Buck in China" by Hilary Spurling

This is not our usual expat/fish out of water story. But it's probably better because you actually get two stories in one!

Pearl Buck grew up in China, the daughter of a long suffering mother and a religious zealot of a missionary father. (When I say zealous I mean crazy. Like he was pretty convinced that women didn't have a soul. And all the other missionaries hates him. And he was named Absalom, which if you're familiar with the Bible, you know that's not someone you'd want to be named after. Not that you can help what your parents name you, but still...)

Early 1900s China was a very isolated place to be, especially the very rural places where Pearl grew up. Her blonde hair and "wild animal" eyes made her the subject of much scorn and finger pointing. However, she didn't keep to herself, she mingled among the Chinese and picked up a very "common" dialect of Chinese.

Pearl's father would be gone for long periods of time, much to the relief of her mother and siblings. She would spend much of her time reading and re-reading the few books in the family library. It was plain to see that Pearl was smart and yearned for more education, so her mother pleaded her father down until she was allowed to go to school back in the United States. Her first two years in college were, unshockingly, awkward and confusing. But by the end she was the class president!

As a side note- there were a lot of opportunities to for the family to go back and forth from wherever they were living in China back to the family roots in West Virginia.  (I felt like they went back and forth between the states and China a LOT considering the time it would take and the transportation options). One time they were even home for a few years because of the extreme violence against foreigners and missionaries because of the Boxer's Rebellion.

Pearl bounced back and forth between China and America her whole life, though after college she thought she'd never go back again, but it wasn't to be.

She was finally driven to write about China out of the desire for financial stability for her daughter, who was born with some kind of developmental delay. (We, nor Pearl, never got a diagnosis). Her first book "The Good Earth" was successful enough that her daughter's needs were taken care of for the rest of her life. Though Pearl continued to write prodigiously. The Chinese were scandalized by all of Pearl's books because they talked unflinchingly about the Chinese people and their struggles. She also wrote a book (thinly veiled fiction) about her mother's life, and another about her father's. The book about her dad was NOT complimentary in anyway.

Real Talk: I've not read any of her books, and frankly this book didn't make me want to pick any of them up. I like that she chose to write about people how they really are and not some weird sanitized version of themselves. (Like some Communist propaganda about how peasants love toiling constantly day and night for Mother Russia or whatever.)


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