Good Earth Gives Easy Access to Dying Chinese Culture

The Good Earth follows a Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, from his wedding day to his death.

Novelist Pearl S. Buck spent most of her life in China. She knows the pre-revolutionary rural life intimately. Through Wang Lung, Buck shows an entire culture.

Wang Lung puts his heart and soul into farming and O-lan, a former kitchen slave, is beside him every step. Besides doing housework, she works with Wang Lung in the fields, stopping only to bear his children.

Hard work — and good luck — eventually make them rich. But wealth is a mixed blessing.

Wang Lung buys a second, expensive wife. His sons are rebellious. He’s forced to take in his uncle’s family. And the doctor cannot cure O-lan’s fatal illness for any amount of money.

The Good Earth reads more like biography than like fiction. Perhaps that’s one reason the novel has endured. Wang Lung’s bafflingly un-American ways of thinking would seem preposterous in a standard American novel format.

Don’t be put off by all Buck’s literary awards. Her writing is simple and direct, not in the least “literary.” You’ll find The Good Earth easy reading.

The Good Earth
By Pearl S. Buck
John Day Co., 1931.
#1 bestseller  in 1931
My grade: Grade: A
 
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Keys of the Kingdom Uplifting Tale of Misfit Priest

A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom is the story of a man who never fit in.

The suicide of the woman he loves drives Francis Chisholm into the priesthood. He’s more interested in practical faith than in proclamations of piety. Francis ticks off one priest by organizing a community center. He offends another by discovering a miracle was a girl’s overactive imagination.

The church sends Francis off to China. His “flourishing missionary compound” turns out to be a shambles, his parishioners “rice Christians.”

Refusing to buy converts, Francis opens a free medical clinic, takes in orphan girls, and establishes a school. He also establishes a relationship with a Catholic community in a remote mountain village and a friendship with a Methodist missionary couple.

Mostly, however, Francis wins respect rather than friends. The church retires him to Scotland, leaving his mission to priests with better PR sense.

Readers would probably not care for Francis in the flesh, but in the novel he’s a sympathetic character, both noble and flawed. And Cronin’s China scenes are reminiscent of Pearl S. Buck.

Though hardly great literature, The Keys of the Kingdom is a good read with a spiritually uplifting tone that’s free of any offensive doctrinal foundation.

The Keys of the Kingdom
By A. J. Cronin
Little, Brown
344 pages
1941 bestseller #1
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Family: People without Passports

A Russian family, “ex-big, ex-great, ex-prosperous” has dwindled to five members living in Tientsin, China in 1937. They operate a boarding house whose rooms they rent to a rag-tag assortment of people of various nationalities whose lives are defined in terms of what they no longer have.

The family is loving, interested in life, and hopeful for the future.

Before long, the Japanese invade China and the family’s already precarious financial situation becomes dire.

Mother has to let the young people leave: Lida to become an American war bride, Dima to be adopted by a lonely English woman, Peter to be smuggled back into Russia. As the biological family scatters, Mother loves the boarders into becoming a family.

Nina Fedorova’s fluid prose will be welcomed by anyone put off by the dense, turgid paragraphs that mark most Russian works. She writes with wit, and  sensitivity about the struggles of people whose lives consist mainly of looking for work and doing without. By then end of The Family, however, her praise of strong women slips into sentimentality.

Despite that sentimentality, The Family remains an eye-opening glimpse of the lives of people without passports in a hostile world.

The Family
by Nina Fedorova
Little, Brown, 1940
346 pages
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Doctors Lock Horns in Disputed Passage

“Tubby” Forrester is a brilliant anatomist and neurosurgeon with a tongue as sharp as his scapel.   Jack Beaven feels that tongue his first day in medical school.

As much as he dislikes Tubby personally, Jack respects the man’s genius and vows to be a top scientist like Tubby. Jack succeeds so well he becomes Tubby’s assistant.

Later Tubby recommends him for the medical school faculty. They work together, but without any personal relationship. Yet Jack becomes more and more like Tubby.

Tubby has Jack see a case referred by one of his college chums, Bill Cummingham, a GP noted for taking a personal interest in patients — a daft idea to scientists like Tubby and Jack.

Jack falls for the boy’s aunt, an American girl raised in China by Chinese foster parents.

Jack’s romantic interest softens him to Bill’s view of treating patients as people instead of cases and leads, indirectly, to cracks in Tubby’s crust as well.

No one would mistake Disputed Passage for literature, but the plot and characters are far above the pot boiler level. 

And, despite Lloyd C. Douglas’ annoying vague religiosity, the novel kept my interest to the end, something a Douglas novel rarely does.

Disputed Passage
By Lloyd C. Douglas
Houghton Mifflin, 1939
432 pages
1939 bestseller # 6
My Grade: B
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni