Worth a Fifth Look

I read “The Good Earth” for the first time when I was in eighth grade, for no other reason than that it was on my parents’ bookshelf and I didn’t have anything better to do.

Some things in it, I never forgot. A Chinese peasant woman had a baby and hours later picked up her hoe and went back to work.  A man whose family was starving hid some beans in his mouth, chewed them up, and spit them into the mouth of his infant daughter in hopes of keeping her alive. That same man spent many grueling days pulling a rickshaw through the streets of a big city. And his sons grew up to be total jerks.

There’s lots more than that, of course, to Pearl S. Buck’s classic tale, which won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1932 and helped earn her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. But a book that can make that kind of impression on a twelve-year-old is probably worth re-reading. So I did.

Four more times.

Once was in college because an English professor required it. The next three times were because it’s available (and so are dozens of other books) in a boxed set at the Putnam County Library. While I was manager of Baxter Branch Library, our Book Bunch chose to discuss “The Good Earth.” I’d been out
of college more than thirty years so a re-read was definitely in order.  A couple of years later, another book group I belong to picked it. Since it’s not a particularly long or difficult book, I read it again. A few months ago, at my suggestion, it landed on the list of the Book Lovers Club discussion group. I volunteered to lead that talk.

Which I felt ill-equipped to do without reading it once more. Only this time, I changed gears a little. Since I’m back and forth to Kentucky as often as possible to visit grandboy Eli, I decided to experience “The Good Earth” as an audiobook.   Even the fifth time through, it’s a riveting story, filled with grinding poverty,
lust, deceit, greed, and unforgettable depictions of life in China in the early
twentieth century.

But this time, what I noticed most was the difference in the whole baby thing there and then and the baby thing here and now. Peasant farmer Wang Lung’s wife O-lan gave birth to all their children—three sons and three “slaves” (aka daughters)–quietly and alone in a primitive hut with nothing to ease her pain or her fear. Within hours, she was back by Wang’s side in the fields.

Leigh gave birth to Eli, whom she and husband Matt would not have considered a slave or second-best had he been a girl, in a modern hospital with Matt by her side and surrounded by doctors and nurses. An epidural helped ease her pain. A lot. Leigh did not go back to weeding the bean field immediately after giving birth. In fact, as far as I know, she’s never weeded a bean field.

O-lan wore her babies in a sling next to her body while she worked. Until the babies were big enough to walk, somebody carried them. They slept on a straw bed if one was available and on the cold hard ground if it wasn’t. Their toys were rocks and sticks. There wasn’t a single book in the hut because nobody in the family could read. The babies, once they were weaned, ate whatever the rest of the family ate. Meaning rice and beans in the years when there was neither flood nor drought or leaves and grass when there was.

Eli rode home from the hospital, and every place else he’s ever been, in the most high-tech car seat you can imagine. He sleeps in a warm room filled with books and toys, none of which he’s old enough to read or play with, on an organic cotton sheet in a sturdy crib. He has a nursery monitor, a “Boppy” pillow, a vibrating bouncer seat, a swing, and a jogging stroller that’s fancier than my first car.

And there you have it. Reason enough to re-read “The Good Earth.” It never hurts to be reminded just how good we’ve got it.

(January 27, 2013)





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