Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


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Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Novel excerpt: Song meets Alice

I’m still working on my next Outlander tourism blog post. Meanwhile, our writing group meets today, and I plan to share this scene draft from my novel-in-progress, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Enjoy.

Posts related to this novel’s journey, buoyed by NaNoWriMo programs, include Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start (April 2016), Packing for Camp (July 2016), The Labor of Learning to Set Limits (September 2016), and This Hunted Story (October 2016).


Scene: Song and Alice meet for the first time as Alice leaves Humpty Dumpty’s estate.  From Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land by C. L. Tangenberg. Draft 11/5/16, revisions 11/22, 12/15

“Little girl!” called Song as Alice began to pass, heading away from her.

It was not the smoothest of introductions.

Alice looked up and screamed, beginning to run the way she was already going before she received such a fright.

“Wait! It is all right. I am not going to hurt you.”

Alice, too scared to listen, did not stop, but it only took a few strides for Song to catch up.

She had no choice. She grasped Alice’s side and shoulder with her right claw, but she did not lift her. Song held the girl in place and tried to shush her. It was not working, so to avoid attracting unwanted attention, Song spread a finger from the same claw over Alice’s lips and said, “I promise, I am not going to hurt you, but I must speak with you as a matter of some urgency.”

She paused but briefly.

“My name is Song, and I am going to take my hand off you now and back away so you can turn freely. Please do not run. I need to talk to you about how you got here. It is a matter of life and death for those I love.”

Alice had begun listening at first because she could hardly do otherwise, and then, something about the creature’s voice, though deep and tremulous with excitement, seemed calming to her. She stopped struggling, and as soon as she did, Song gently let go of her. Still afraid and shivering, Alice did not turn right away. When she finally did turn, her head moved first, followed by her body.

“Wha– I mean, who – are you?” Alice asked in a voice that squeaked in spite of her. She swallowed, hoping to strengthen it. She was now fully turned and facing Song.

The young Jabberwock breathed an internal sigh of relief and decided not to press her luck. She slowly sat down so as not to tower over the girl. Instinctively, she closed her hands into tighter balls than was comfortable, knowing that her claws might easily seem to be reaching for Alice if she were not careful about how she held them. She dropped her hands to her sides, making fists into the ground, which also helped her relieve some tension and feel more grounded.

Now that Song had Alice’s attention, it seemed impossible to know just where to begin. The wind was whipping up, and a few stray leaves in full green dipped and dived across the clearing in which the two very different girls sat. There was a chill that went with this wind, and the sun seemed to grow shy in the face of such a meeting as this. Song looked around and up, then, behind them toward Humpty Dumpty’s stone wall. She wanted to be sure no one had heard Alice scream or seen Song chase her.

“My name is Song Warber,” she began. “I am of the Wock race that lives, well, that used to live, here in Looking-Glass Land. My parents, my brother, and my sister are nearly all that is left of us. The Nobles have—” She stopped. No. Too much too soon. “Let me back up. I live in the Tulgey Wood by the Knights’ Forest. Do you know either of those places?”

“No,” said Alice, growing calmer with each breath. “No I do not. I have meet the Tweedles—”

“Yes, I know.”

“You know?” Alice’s eyes widened. “How . . . do you know?” Alice’s speech became strained and tentative again.

“Oh, I was passing through there. It is actually not far from the path I usually take to get home from my chores. And I have heard of you,” she added quickly, “from around the land. Your coming here has raised some . . . interest.”

She paused again. All of this was changing so fast, it was hard to know how to represent everyday life. Everyday life was effectively extinct for Song.

“Your name is Alice, is not it?”

“Yes, that is right.”

“Forgive me. I stopped out of curiosity and watched you with the twins for a while. I heard how they frightened you about the Red King. I’m sorry for that. For what it’s worth, I believe you are real.”

Song attempted a smile, but she knew it would not be received as anything more friendly than a grimace. It was not in the Wocks’ custom to smile as an expression of happiness. They expressed their joy with the instruments nearer to hand—their arms, their wings, their antennae. Their lips were not much, and not much for flexible movement. It had taken an accelerated adaptation to learn English as a spoken language. One could almost liken their speaking to ventriloquism; they were able to pronounce English words very well without much lip motion.

Alice tried to smile back, perceiving that Song had tried, too.

Song looked down in mild embarrassment upon noticing this gesture. “The thing is,” she began again, “it is because you are real that they feel threatened by you. The Nobles, I mean.”

“Threatened? How?” This was news to Alice.

“Well, I do not want to alarm you, but they have employed sentinels, a kind of guard, to watch the portals for forbidden species and humans trying to enter Looking-Glass Land. My father is one of those guards. Or, at least he was until the Nobles found out about you. Now, he has been punished for letting you in. You see, human children are among those not allowed here. I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned that to you yet.”

“No, they haven’t.” Alice was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable indeed. It was also odd to her that her fear was not coming directly from beholding this creature before her, but from warnings, of what seemed a friendly sort, that the creature was sharing. But then she remembered.

“Then why do they not escort me out? I have met several of the chess pieces already—the Red Queen, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the White Queen, and Humpty Dumpty just now.”

“Well, technically, the Tweedles and Humpty are more like pawns, but never mind. That is not important. Yes, the queens might well have seemed tolerant of you, acted out of politeness. The truth is, I think they are afraid of human little girls.” Song opened a questioning claw while adding, “I do not know why. So many things about the Nobles and Royals are not to be explained.

“Afraid? Of me?” This notion seemed quite silly to Alice. She chuckled, but it quickly turned to hurt. “Why, I would not hurt anyone! I hardly can.”

“Yes, there seems to be some hidden reason for their fear, which is why they try so hard to act normal around you.” Song was pensive, searching.

“Normal? I would not say that.” Alice reflected on what passed for normal around here. “No, I wouldn’t say their behavior is normal at all.”

“Well, still, it is a bit of a mystery, as if there is something they chose not to tell Looking-Glass citizens about the blacklisted creatures. It really seems as if more and more beings are getting to be off limits. It becomes sort of . . . tight around here, if that makes any sense. Kind of pinched. I do not know quite how to explain it.”

“You mean stressful? Like everyone’s afraid of upsetting the king?” Alice offered.

“Yes, just so! They keep adding more and more rules and restrictions all the time, of all sorts, until it is hard to know how to behave or where to go or what you are allowed to say, or even be, after a while. The Wocks have long been restricted terribly much, in many ways, by the Nobles. For us, too, things are getting worse, very fast actually.”

Song looked up to see if Alice understood. She was fully attentive, but her expression had changed little. Wide eyes and a sympathetic brow accompanied rosy cheeks and a petite set of pink lips. Suddenly, Alice sat down where she was, with growing interest in what Song had to say. This was encouraging to the Jabberwock youth. At least this human girl wanted to hear more, even if she could not understand everything. Song continued.

“This is why I came to find you. It was mere luck that I happened to hear you and Humpty Dumpty talking. I needed to tell you about this, about my situation because I thought you might be able to help.”

Song took a deep breath and went for it.

“Would you be willing to help me?” Her tone was almost shy.

“I suppose so,” Alice said simply. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I guess that is the real question. I want to get my father back, for starters. He has been banished to the Sleef Mountains off to the west. That was his punishment for what they said was ‘not doing his job.’”

Song decided to keep things simple by not telling Alice about the mysterious additional penalty, the details of which Song herself did not yet know. It seemed pointless to add this wrinkle to the present complications. She needed to gain momentum now that she had Alice’s ear.

The wind picked up again, but the sun came out this time, light scattering across Song’s antennae as if across tree limbs. Alice was watching, wondering what the creature was thinking. “Are you really sure I can help?” she asked finally.

“Honestly, I do not know,” Song admitted. “I was hoping you would come with me to the White Palace in order to petition to the King for my father’s return. You see, I know my father. He is a good worker. He would not shirk his duties. He has never had a mark against his record. I know he could not have let you in.” Song blushed suddenly.

Not missing a beat, Alice said, “Wait, how can that be? Does he not guard the looking-glass above the hearth in the house in the 1st Square?”

“No, he does not. Wait, the house?”

“Then how—”

“You said it was a house?” Song just realized Alice was describing a portal she did not know about.

“Yes, why?”

“Oh, there is more than one portal in and out of Looking-Glass Land, but there is no portal at any house in the land. At least I have never heard of it. My father worked the one nearest the Reed-Wallow, not at a house.”

“There are supposed to be only four portals.” Song opened her lips again to say which ones were where but then thought better of it. She did not want Alice escaping the land without at least coming with her to the palace, if possible. Song settled on “Yours would make five.”

“Well, it is not mine,” Alice replied bashfully, but the feeling turned into pondering, with scrunched eyebrows and a finger to her mouth. “At least I do not think so.”

Alice began to have a strange feeling that maybe she had created the portal on her own somehow, that it was not there until she put it there. Curiouser and curiouser, she thought to herself.

“This is very strange,” Song said, echoing Alice’s thoughts. “Why do you suppose— Well, no, how would you know, right? I mean, do you come from a place with many portals in it?”

“Not exactly. We can walk through open doors and cross borders and such, but those are all clear and visible. You know what you are about to do by how it looks from the side you start from.” Alice secretly believed she was still dreaming, and that, perhaps, it was possible her dream was a kind of portal into this world. “No, we do not have portals like the one I went through, usually. But then, I did go through it . . . This is all so confusing.”

“Yes, it is,” Song conceded. “But maybe, if you come with me to the White Palace, we can both get some answers. If you can tell them about what you did, then maybe they will see my father is innocent.”

“But I thought you said they do not like little girls. Will I not get into trouble just for showing up?” Alice brought her arms in toward her chest, folding them with her fists resting under her chin in apprehension, and then she began to scramble up on to her hands and knees from the seated position she had been in. “I— You have told me—”

“Yes. Yes, it is possible things will not go very well, for either of us. But I guarantee my fate will be worse than yours. You, they will most likely send back to your own world, if they find the courage to deal with you directly, that is. But something about their rules and behavior regarding little girls makes me think they might not be brave enough to do much of anything with you. It is a risk, I know, but honestly Alice, I am desperate. I think you’ll be okay. And you see that I am also strong.” She paused, working diligently on more ways to convince the girl to go with her.

Finally, Song said, “What if we were to make a deal, you and I? You agree to come help me get my father back, and I agree to protect you if anyone at all should try to harm you. As I hope you have learned by now, I have nothing against little girls. In fact, I think I am starting to like you.” Song smiled. “Even with all the craziness in my life that is making it hard to like anything or anybody. You might just be something really special, Alice. All these strange things. I do not know.” She shook her head in wonderment.

“I think I know what you mean. You have proven that you are not bad yourself.” Alice chuckled nervously, not quite convinced of her own declaration. She thought for a moment about Song’s proposal. This was not exactly how she had pictured her adventures in Looking-Glass Land going. But it was an adventure, even if it was one she had not chosen herself.

“Why not? Let us strike hands on the bargain.” Alice gradually held out her right hand to Song.

“Oh, okay,” Song said slowly, reaching out her hand equally slowly. She did not want to hurt the girl with her ungainly claws, so she held her large hand out still, nodding to Alice to strike it.

“It is a deal,” said Alice, with a pat of her hand on the claw, which felt a bit dry and scaly.

“All right. This way.”

And Song led them off to the east toward the seat of power in Looking-Glass Land, on what would seem to be a hunch and the smallest hope, but she felt lighter somehow. Now they had each other. Alice was a good girl, she could tell. Song decided she would do her best to do what she had promised, to protect Alice from harm, no matter what else may happen.