Dragon Seed Eyes Killing in a Good Cause

Rice paddies and mountains near Yangshuo in Southern China

In Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck returns to her beloved China to explore an important question: does killing change people into killers?

Ling Tan is an illiterate farmer. He and his wife Lao San have three married children and a younger son and daughter.

When the Japanese invade China, Ling Tan and the other farmers hope that by being civil to the conquerors, they can lead fairly normal lives.

They are merely fooling themselves.

The invaders rape and pillage, then set up local puppet governments to systematically bleed the country.

Ling Tan and his family organizes a local resistance. But Ling Tan worries about whether the killing at which he and his family become adept will not fundamentally change them, dehumanize them. Secret radio broadcasts from the Allies give them courage to wait for the light for the invaders to be repelled.

With its secret rooms, guerrilla raids, and the constant threat of exposure hanging over the characters’ heads, Dragon Seed will attract more readers today than Buck’s better known novel The Good Earth.  Dragon Seed covers less time and has more action, much of it horrifying, though tastefully presented. It also has a vivid characterizations and a wealth of telling detail.

Above all it has that nagging question every thoughtful person must consider in an era of conflict: does killing change people into killers?

Dragon Seed
Pearl S. Buck
John Day, 1942
378 pages
1942 Bestseller #3
My Grade: A-

Photo credit: “Chinese Landscape” showing rice paddies and mountains near the town of Yangshuo in Southern China. Uploaded by bewinca http://www.sxc.hu/photo/905398

© 2012 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