To start these posts assume two things, that either everyone who reads this blog has read the book, or that after reading my review they will be better informed to pick this one up. I am not going to rate anything, if it sounds interesting read it, if not don’t. Simple enough. Unless I feel especially moved by a work, I will not try to mediate between you and literature. Read for yourself.
This work was incredibly accessible. It is a simple, simple story about a peasant farmer that rises through all of the avenues available to him. He is a rock of mostly moral dependability, which I find troubling about Buck’s work. I wonder what she believes about his actions. She presents his actions very fairly. He is pressed to make some hard decisions, and throughout avoids, more than decides, certain moral turpitude. The entire work had this benevolent cosmic being orchestrated Wang Lung, main characters, life to work out well for him mostly because he was a hard worker. It would be impossible to make any certain kind of moral, religious, or ideological claim on this work. It is too multi-faceted for that. Lung’s actions and the resulting consequences mirror to closely the ambiguous nature of life to make moralizing possible. If this then is Buck’s central theme that ‘life is complex’ she accomplishes that, and that is a humble outcome and speaks into a certain type of life that attempts to define everything around them by positing knowledge into the unknowable. Let me outline this for you, and I think I might have to get into some literature terms to get there so stay with me.
Lung is a humble farmer, taken after his father, they own the land they live on. At some point, He buys a slave for a wife from the great house of the town. This common woman comes to live with him. These two characters exchange 4 or 5 sentences throughout the entire novel. This I find a failing on Lung’s part. When there is a severe famine in the land, Lung, after much much debating decides bring his small family south to find work. There they starve and beg for a living in a tenement housing situation. Here, as they are starving and hoping to get back to the land after the drought is over, he is tempted into selling his youngest daughter into the same slavery that he bought his wife out of. He simply avoids this and as he avoids it, he is ‘blessed’ by being at the right place at the right time, inheriting some money in a very funny situation. The novel waffles on itself, and you can never tell if Lung is in his heart a good or bad person.
Now this is not always your objective when introduced to your protagonist. In older traditions, you just assumed that you are supposed to like the main character and his venture forward, but with protagonists like Nick Caraway from the Great Gatsby, or Holden Caufield from The Catcher and the Rye, it is brought to our attention that we may not be getting the entire story or a shading of it. The interesting thing about this novel is that Buck leads you to define her character for her. She leaves it up to the reader delicately. She presents his life to you, and she allows you the time to consider his actions before moving onto the next part. This is a simple, beautiful book that portrays the simplistic complexity of life. She is proposing a gray world full of unimaginable evil, cosmic sorrow, and pure elation, and it is the objective of the reader but then also almost the participant to make the key judgments that will pilot their lives.
One issue I take with this novel is that it introduces a lot of information that it doesn’t utilize properly. At one point when the family ventures south to a southern city, the family interact with white people which the main character finds very startling, but they only inhabit this section of the novel and never again. Then also Wang Lung is given a tract that has a picture of Jesus on the Cross on it. No one in Lung’s family can read the text on it, but they look at the Crucifixion and all agree that whatever someone had done to deserve such a death was probably really bad. But yet again nothing ever comes of this implication. I don’t know what Buck’s point was in introducing these things and not coming back to them at any point. It was a beautiful experience at points, at other points painfully uncomfortable to sit through, but a moving reading experience that I could recommend to the right person.