INDOMITABLE – that one word sums up the character of Pearl Buck. Born in China, to missionary parents, Pearl grew up more a Chinese than an American. Chinese was her first language, her playmates were farmers’ children in rural China and America was the distant dreamland that came alive in the nighttime stories her mother told her. Pearl went on to become an international celebrity, a writer who opened the gates of China to the American mind, which was filled with prejudices and misplaced sympathy for the Asian nation.
Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling chronicles the truly remarkable life of Pearl. She was born in the family of Presbyterians, to a father who was a stubborn missionary and worked alone, believing himself to be endowed with special zeal for god’s work. Her mother, a ‘victim’ of bad marriage, remained subdued to her husband all her life. Pearl saw the birth and death of her siblings due to lack of medical attention. She witnessed her mother suffer and wilt daily, and early in life too she learnt not to remember uncomfortable things.
When she grew up roaming freely in the fields, she encountered several body parts of female infants, half eaten by dogs. Such was the rampant female foeticide in China. She gave these a burial. The title of the book comes from this. Pearl won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for her work, especially, The Good Earth, a best seller of its time.
In her younger days, Pearl was in awe of the father. She had the feeling that while talking to him, she was talking to more than a man. However, when she grew up, she realised with “anger and indignation” at the way the Church was preaching the religion in China. Her writings on the missionary work of her father and his mission caused scandal throughout the US and severed her connections with the Presbyterian Church.
Her love and sympathy for China and her people made her a suspect in the eye of the American system. Doubting her to be a communist, the FBI tailed her for several years, scrutinising her transactions and activities. Pearl married an agriculturalist, also working for the mission in China. It was not a fulfilling relation. Her husband, much like her father gave himself up totally to work. For both these men, women were not to be taken seriously. Pearl had one daughter, who suffered from a degenerative disease. She had always desired a huge family. So she went ahead and adopted six children, mostly during her second marriage to her publisher. This marriage gave her the emotional anchor she had lacked all her life.
Pearl wrote several non-fiction books, novels and articles on China. Characters in her novels were based on several real people she had encountered. She also wrote biographic accounts of her father The Fighting Angel and her mother The Exile.
Her writings on China had that genuine warmth that even the Chinese writers lacked. One of her readers said, “She was the first to humanize the Chinese and make them comprehensible”
In her analysis of the missionary work in China Pearl said, “More insidious in its pessimism is … the question of whether anyone has the right to impress upon another the forms of his own civilization, whether these forms are religious or not.” She criticised the ‘stinking condescension’ saying, “Consciously or unconsciously we have come to these foreign countries saying in our hearts that we had all to give and nothing to get. We have not … sought to understand the civilizations with which we dealt… We have the abominable attitude of one who confers a favor…. Even though we have spilled our blood and have broken our hearts, it has been a favor.”
The author of about 50 works of fiction and non-fiction and several articles, Pearl spent her last days in self-imposed exile, dying of lung cancer.
The author says that “Buck is virtually forgotten today. She has no place in feminine mythology, and her novels have been effectively eliminated from the American literary map. .. “In China she is admired but not read,” ran an article in the New York Times, “and in America she is read but not admired.” True. She was an extraordinary woman of strength of character. In this world of passing fancies, she is only a vague memory.
Hilary Spurling brings out the intense emotional and traumatic experience of Pearl, as she grew up in China. In a way, her early life in China is what her entire life was about. The author of several biographies, and a theatre critic, Spurling has weaved Pearl’s life with her writings in such a smooth way that the two merge to present the totality that Pearl was. The narration is fortified by notes and photos. An interesting read and a book for the keeps.
(Profile Books, 3A Exmouth House, Pine Street, London ECIR OJH, www.profilebooks.com)