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By Pearl Buck
New York: Pocket Books, A Washington Square Press Publication, 19948
From the 1931 original
ISBN # 0-671-51012-6
379 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2013

This is a phenomenal epic, set in a remote rural area of China probably about the late 19th, early 20th century. We follow the lives of a humble uneducated farmer, Wang Lung and his wife, O-lan, still a slave girl when the novel opens.

Wang Lung, encouraged by his mother, goes to the home of a rich local family and begs to “buy” a slave for his wife. He is sold O-lan and they live a long and, if not terribly loving life, at least a life of significant success and mutual respect and work.

Throughout most of the novel Wang Lung’s father lives with them, and eventually there is the new family of Wang Lung and O-lan, they three sons and two girls, one a severely retarded little girl.

This is an epic with brilliant descriptions of everyday life and people, who are very decent, thrifty, hard-working, but not demonstrative of their feelings for each other. In order to advance the long story and give author Pearl Buck a chance to lay bare the nature of rural Chinese society, there are happy and successful moments, moments of great danger and near disaster, relationship catastrophes and so on. In that sense there is a bit of the soap opera in the novel. Yet it is a gripping read, and still, some 80 years after it was first published it is a page-turner that one can hardly set down.

A dominant theme is that for Wang Lung LAND is the essence of life and security. When the novel opens he has a very small plot of land and is as dedicated to that land as to his mother and father. Soon, with O-lan at his side (literally, she comes, unasked, into the fields to work beside him) the land prospers.

Eventually comes a disaster of a terrible flood which drives the family, now with several children, away from the farm and into a city. When they can finally return to the farm O-lan is carrying some jewels she saved from a wrecked city house after a war raid, and they are on their way to buying much more land and eventually becoming quite wealthy. The rich family, where O-lan had been a slave, is on terrible hard terms and it clear to Wang Lung what their problem is:

“It comes of their leaving the land . . .”

Family trouble with his own uncle and Wang Lung’s own problems dealing with his growing prosperity bring lots of complexity and problems to the later part of the novel, but each time a terrible crisis erupts, something happens with the land – locusts, a flood and such, and they bring Wang Lung back to the land and to his own survival. The land is to Wang Lung what religion and God have been to many others.

In many ways this is Wang Lung’s story, but the simple O-lan is the stronger and certainly steadier of the two. And while Wang Lung is deeply close to O-lan he isn’t in romantic love and not very sensitive. Late in life she finally tells him that she has “fire in her belly,” he simply ignores this and does nothing.

On the burial of his father and wife Wang Kung called priests from both a Buddhist Temple and priests from a Taoist Temple. Even at his wife’s death he didn’t cry:

“. . . he would not cry out loud as others did for there were no tears in his eyes, because it seemed to him that was what had come about, and there was nothing more that he had done.”

The novel is deeply powerful and the images of the Chinese people in it are so rich and believable that I read it as much as a sociological document as I did a novel. It is just a marvelous read.

For me there was a certain irony in “discovering” this novel and author so late in my own life. I have been an avid reader since I was a young child. My parents, on the other hand, virtually never read a book. We had almost no books in our home. I recall a dictionary, a Bible and one “set” of beautifully bound books, perhaps a wedding present to my parents. It was in a closet and never seen outside it. I checked it out a couple times, but it was a several volume set of the novels of Pearl Buck. I never even picked one up. I don’t know whatever happened to that set, but now I am so regretful that I don’t have this family heirloom which is gone forever.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett