Pearl of China by Anchee Min (Canada) - (USA)
Pages: 278 pages
Finished: May 9, 2010
First Published: Mar. 30, 2010
Genre: Historical fiction
Before I was Willow, I was Weed.
Acquired: Received a review copy from Penguin Group (Canada).
Reason for Reading: I am a huge fan of Pearl S. Buck, having read almost all of her books.
The book purports to be the fictionalized story of Pearl Buck's life in China told through the eyes of a lifetime Chinese friend. Pearl's mother went to the US to give birth to Pearl after losing several babies but soon came back to China with the babe in arms and Pearl was to remain there well into her thirties, except for brief periods away while she sought higher eduction in the US. She even married and came back a missionary herself. Willow, her fictional friend, tells the story of her own life and how it intermingled with Pearl's and through this the reader gets glimpses into the great writer's life, who though she was white on the outside was Chinese on the inside.
The book is enjoyable and we are given a touching look inside the day-to-day life of a small Chinese village, Chin-kiang, from the early 1900s through the end of Mao's Cultural Revolution. The villagers themselves are eccentric and lovable and the reader falls in love with the people and way of life, though one must watch out for the war lords, in Chin-kiang before the terrible atrocities of the revolutions started.
I'm not sure I completely agree with the author's portrayal of Pearl's mother and father. She does have the personalities correct but it somehow feels overboard. It has been a long time since I read Buck's two biographies, that each tell the same story, one through her father's eyes, The Fighting Angel, the other through her mother's, The Exile, so I can't say anything concrete but I am left with an odd feeling here.
The same goes for Pearl actually. Since the author chose the rather strange narrative of telling Pearl's life through the eyes of a (non-existant) Chinese best friend from childhood, the reader can only experience those parts of Buck's life in which the friend is involved. Thus creating long passages of time where Pearl Buck is not present. I have only read Buck's first biography, My Several Worlds, but there is a large amount of information missing on Pearl's life and the topics that were close to heart. I'm rather dismayed that Anchee Min glosses over the atrocities of the Nanking Massacre so quickly, as it is a subject that Pearl writes about in much detail.
Now, rather than being the story of Pearl Buck, this novel is more the story of Willow a Chinese peasant who happened to know Pearl Buck. We are shown how her childhood is influenced as she becomes like a sister to Pearl and Carie (Pearl's mother) becomes like a mother to her for her entire life, as her own mother died when she was very young. Her father is converted to Christianity, fake on his part to start with, but eventually a true convert and the reader sees how being a Christian in Mao's China affects ones life. Actually, the most riveting part of this novel is the Mao years. I always find reading about the Cultural Revolution almost unbelievable and then terrifying when the reality sets in my mind.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. I think it is a mistake to assume this is a book about Pearl Buck and will be better enjoyed with the understanding that it is the story of a peasant girl who knew Pearl for thirty-odd years. I certainly enjoyed the writing style and if I had known nothing about Pearl S. Buck to begin with, it would be a teaser of an introduction to this great woman and perhaps may make readers look up some of her lesser known work. This is the first Anchee Min book I've read and I see she has written several others; I will definitely be reading her backlist.