The titular Pearl is not a rare gem from the Ming Dynasty, but a jewel of brilliant luster imported to China from America: Pearl Sydenstricker, better known as Pearl S. Buck, who was briefly married to Lossing Buck.
In this excellent interpretation of Pearl’s story from a Chinese perspective told with a haunting quality only Anchee Min can deliver, the bestselling author of RED AZALEA and EMPRESS ORCHID again focuses her attention on influential women of her native China. Min deviates from tales of Madame Mao and Empress Tzu Hsi to concentrate on the life of the daughter of missionaries in China during arguably that country’s most tumultuous eras.
Fraught with historical accuracy, the details of Pearl’s life are there: the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. After her birth in 1892, Pearl spent the first 40 years of her life in China: “Beneath her skin, she was Chinese. She had never considered that she was not Chinese.” Min also examines China’s heritage, with age-old words of wisdom: “To a Chinese person, a good death is more important than a good birth.” This we learn shortly after reading, “Having no money for a proper burial, the turtle-faced lady dumped the body into the river.”
In a male-dominated society, Madame Mao Tse-tung shattered gender barriers. Min enchantingly reveals the tender side of how other great women have more subtly influenced cultural change in China. Through protagonist Willow Yee, we learn that at the depths of Pearl’s despair with a severely handicapped child and abandoned by her husband, THE GOOD EARTH was written: “As a way to escape her troubles, Pearl began to write. She found comfort in writing. She told me that her imagination was the only place where she could be herself and be free.” Pearl “had always been a lover of books.”
During decades of oppressive poverty, ni hao (hello) came to mean Have you eaten?, much as How are you? in English is a greeting, not so much an inquiry. With a curious use of chopsticks, Min delves into intimate details of the lives of China’s proletariat during Chairman Mao’s reign of terror known as the Great Leap Forward. She conveys her own communist indoctrination and being taught to hate Buck’s books through Willow’s daughter: “Rouge was taught combat skills the moment she learned to walk. Her first spoken line was ‘I am a brave soldier’...reciting Karl Marx’s famous phrase ‘Capitalism is a greedy monster.’”
Willow stealthily conceals mailing letters to Pearl in America and is later imprisoned: “Your friendship with Pearl Buck is seen as a threat to national security. Pearl’s status in America and her public criticism of Mao and the Communist Party have categorized her as an enemy of China.”
As though a page were taken from Willow’s book, Min was taught to tarnish Pearl’s literature as a result of the cultural revolution but learned from her generations later and refreshes the nacre luster of China’s Pearl. As reading history is at times tedious, occasionally too is Min’s richly researched offering. Considering that it spans 90 years, like time, this rewarding read passes far too quickly.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (DeanMurphy@Verizon.net) on January 14, 2011