three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
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Journey to The Good Earth

A-Pearl Buck in ChinaHilary Spurling, who has also written biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Sonia Orwell, won the Whitbread Prize in 2005 for the second part of her two-volume life of Henri Matisse (Matisse the Master, 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006).

The Topic: Pearl Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize, was one of the nation’s best-known writers in her own time, even if she is not widely read today--perhaps because Buck’s most significant work, The Good Earth (1931), took as its subject not the United States but the peasants of China, where Buck grew up as the daughter of Protestant missionaries. Buck wrote several works about her own life but left a scant archival record and had few close friends. Spurling aims to revive interest in Buck by filling in the details about her tumultuous personal and professional life--from her crafting of The Good Earth to her efforts to repeal America’s anti-Chinese laws and her work with mixed-race children.
Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $27. ISBN: 9781416540427

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[Spurling] has fashioned an extraordinary portrait, rich in detail, ambitious in scope, with a vast historical backdrop that informs but never overwhelms its remarkable subject. Precisely and vividly she restores the ordeals Buck preferred to forget." Stacy Schiff

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] compelling reappraisal of Buck’s tumultuous early life and myriad accomplishments. ... It’s unlikely that this absorbing biography will bring about a resurgence of interest in Buck’s work, but its value lies in turning us back to her fascinating life and to the plights of a culture so vastly different from our own." Carmela Ciuraru

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reading Pearl Buck in China, I often wished Ms. Spurling had a stronger, more angular critical voice. ... Ms. Spurling does, however, get at the qualities that made Buck a stirring writer, notably ‘an innate, abundant, emotionally exorbitant ability to enter imaginatively into other people’s lives.’" Dwight Garner

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In this examination of the extraordinary hold China had on one of the most influential women of the 20th century, Spurling wants to remind readers why Buck should be better remembered." Maria Puente

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
" One unfortunate omission, however, is a discussion of the effect of Buck’s Christianity on her life and work. ... Ms. Spurling is more interested in psychoanalyzing Buck’s relations with her parents and cheering her feminist break-out from her first marriage." Melanie Kirkpatrick

Critical Summary

One of the challenges of writing about a great author, particularly one who has elegantly written about her own life, is deciding when to use one’s own words and when to let the writer speak for herself. A similar challenge faces the reviewer, and critics reading Pearl Buck in China mostly used their articles as occasions to celebrate the subject rather than the biography. Still, if reviewers were not effusive in their praise, they had few complaints about Spurling’s book and clearly admired her thorough research and elegant prose. But as the New York Times pointed out, "Ms. Spurling’s book isn’t a full-dress biography"; instead, it focuses mostly on Buck’s formative years as a writer. For a more comprehensive biography, readers may wish to turn to Peter Conn’s 1996 study, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography.

Supplemental Reading

The Good Earth | Pearl Buck (1931): F Pulitzer PrizE. This portrait of rural customs, social change, and peasant lives in China in the early 1900s helped Americans overcome their ignorance of the country.