Friday, April 2, 2021

#BookReview of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, Graphic Adaptation by Nick Bertozzi

The Operation Awesome theme for the #atozchallenge 2021 is book reviews. I had the chance to re-read some old favorites to see how my perspective has changed over time, as well as some new loves!

B is for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, Graphic Adaptation by Nick Bertozzi

This was an interesting read because Buck was a white woman who spent the first forty years or so of her life (approximately 1890 to 1930) in Zhenjiang, China. She could fluently speak both the local dialect of Chinese and standard Chinese (though I couldn't figure this out for sure, I think this refers to Mandarin). Many of the events detailed in her book were events she witnessed, or lived through. 

The book dramatizes family life in a Chinese village in the early 20th century, beginning with farmer Wang Lung marrying his wife O-Lan. The plot centers on Wang Lung, who tries to build his family's fortune by buying up land from the wealthy House of Hwang. Over time, his fortunes rise and fall, as with years of drought that force the family to move south to beg, and back to years of plenty when their farm produces a great deal of food. Wang Lung is portrayed as hardworking and cautious, though not without his faults - he struggles to be faithful to his wife, and as his wealth grows, he becomes consumed with outward appearances. In the end, though he built his entire family's wealth and wellbeing on the land he bought, Wang Lung's sons go behind his back to sell it. 

I have never read the original text of THE GOOD EARTH, so it was an interesting experience to read it for the first time as a graphic novel. The story encompasses a time and place I know very little about. I would like to track down a copy of the original work, but before I do, I want to learn more about China in the early 20th century. It's hard to judge whether the book is accurate in its portrayal without that kind of information. I would recommend this to older teens and adults, but it would probably be helpful to have the background on the setting before reading. 

THE GOOD EARTH really called into question the same thing we've been grappling with as a community for years now: Who gets to tell what story? Buck was a white American woman, and she won the Pulitzer Prize for this work. It was even re-popularized by Oprah in the early 2000s. It's not as if there weren't Chinese Americans living in the United States at the time who could have told their own stories or the stories of their parents' or grandparents' generations. However, she did grow up in China - is her experience being Chinese as valid as someone born in the US to Chinese parents, but who doesn't know the culture or speak the language? Maybe her work and her fame were simply due to the privilege of being white. Maybe it was because she was well-educated. And yet, at the same time, her privilege made this work famous. Maybe it wouldn't have been as well-received coming from another writer. Maybe I never would've heard of it. There is some evidence to show that THE GOOD EARTH paved the way for Americans to acknowledge China as an ally during WWII, so it can't be condemned for that. Buck founded the first interracial, international adoption agency in the US. Are good works enough to overcome someone writing about a cultural or ethnic group to which they don't belong? I still don't know. 

What do you think? Do you think people should only write about characters that are like them? Or do you think writers are free to write any character of any background? 

Goodreads (original novel)

Goodreads (graphic adaptation)


  1. If you are interested in Chinese recent history (last 100+ years), I highly recommend Wild Swans by Jung Chang - A Chinese author. It relates a family's growth and change over three generations, from the time pre-war with Japan.

    As to your question about authenticity, I would not reject her tale due to her race. If that is where she grew up, that's what she knows. It is probably more accurate than if she tried to write about the same period in her home country... because she wasn't in her home country at the time. Although, her perspective of a village peasant would of course, be second hand. But don't we often write about what we observe more than what we lived through?

  2. Good question - but surely if we can't accept writing because it is a man written by a woman or vice versa a person of one race described by a person of another - then nothing would get written! I have often wondered (and could probably find out) whether the autor of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night" had Aspergers, knew someone with it or researched the whole thing. But I know enogh about Aspergers to know that it is a valid attempt to describe what life might be like with Aspergers.
    So surely we must read everything remembering that it is fiction and filtered through the pen of the author in their time, with their mores and never reject things for those reasons...

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  4. I do not believe that we have to stick to what our life experience is. As Frewin55 said above me, that would greatly restrict writing ability. Of course, any depiction of a different gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, political view, etc. should be respectful and as accurately portrayed as possible. However, shutting down all writing that is not part of the author's personal experience basically destroys almost all fiction.

    All that aside, I will be looking up this book. I lived in Beijing for two years and am currently living in Vietnam. I love books about this side of the world.

    Visiting from A to Z
    Blogging at Transformed Nonconformist

  5. I do like a graphic novel as a break from heavy reading. I think writers have to be allowed to write about people from different backgrounds or lifestyles to them, or it would be very difficult to write anything meaningful. That said, it should be done with care and not ignorance!

  6. An excellent review of the novel, encouraging me to read it again (almost as though for the first time.)
    theme: Novel Research - novel as in interesting, different, unusual.

  7. I've enjoyed reading Pearl Buck's work and glad she wrote them. Writing outside your culture depends on your knowledge and respect of the culture which Pearl Buck wrote. I think where people go wrong is where they put their hidden or not so hidden prejudices into their story. Plus, there is a problem of stories being written by whites to the point POC never get their stories out and that is a very real problem.


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