Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling is an extraordinary review of a remarkable woman’s life. Pearl Buck was a woman who knew world leaders and artists. She advocated for equal and civil rights. She introduced the western world to the dying Imperial China of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet, in our modern world, the works of Pearl Buck are nearly forgotten. It is within the pages of Pearl Buck in China that Spurling reintroduces Pearl S. Buck in a fresh, sometimes fierce, scope. Spurling reminds us that Buck wrote several dozen books, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel (The Good Earth) in 1932, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938.
It is in rural China, a place untouched by western missionaries at the time, that Pearl Buck’s life and subsequent career formed its foundation. Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China delves into Buck’s existence in China from Buck’s toddler years to her early adulthood. Spurling writes that “(Buck’s) own bestsellers combine hypnotic elements of fantasy and wish fulfillment with glimpses of more disturbing truths secreted beneath the romantic formulae, and occasionally disrupting it.”
It is in this dreamlike ether that Spurling gives new life to Pearl Buck’s life and career; yet, within the hypnotic elements, Spurling also displays the secreted truths. We, the reader, are shown a little blond child collecting the bones of throwaway female infants and burying them as she had witnessed at official Chinese burials. There is the constant reminder of Buck being different than her neighbors; she is spat on and called demon simply because of her blond hair and blue eyes. Buck flees revolutions with little more than her life. All these elements remained buried with her until they began to emerge through her varying written works.
Spurling’s writing is well structured, clean and engaging. She seems to have thoroughly researched her subject as she correlates Buck’s life with those of Buck’s written creations. Spurling shows how stories and storytelling encompassed Pearl Buck’s life from infancy and through her adult years. It was through stories that Buck could forget her troubles and reinvent herself. “She [Buck] said that every one of her own novels included a character who was a version of herself, and that her imaginary world of dreams, projections, and fictional presences came to seem to her as substantial as the real world.”
Within Pearl Buck in China, Buck is drawn as a multifaceted character imbued with significance. I suppose it’s the mark of a good biography that has me reading the subject’s (Buck’s) works once more.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.