Pearl of China
by Anchee Min
Willow is a young Chinese peasant who befriends the daughter of a Christian missionary, Pearl, in the rural town of Chin-kiang. Willow’s father is a trickster who pretends to convert to Christianity and works with Absolom, Pearl’s father, to spread the word of God amongst other Chinese peasants. When the natives begin to show hostility toward foreigners, Pearl is sent to Shanghai for safety. Her education takes her even farther as she returns to America for college, but the friendship with Willow endures. Both girls – now women – suffer disappointing marriages, but for a time they are reunited in China as Pearl’s husband seeks to teach new agriculture techniques to the Chinese people. But as the 1949 Revolution comes ever closer, Pearl is forced to leave the country again. When Mao rises to power, Willow’s husband rises with him, but her refusal to denounce her childhood friend lands Willow in hot water. Through trials and tribulations, the friendship between Willow and Pearl endures, but at a great price.
As a child, author Anchee Min was ordered to denounce Pearl S. Buck, and for years she believed the American woman to be a toxic enemy of the Chinese people. It wasn’t until Min came to the United States that she read The Good Earth, Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about pre-Revolution life. It almost seems like writing this fictional account of Buck’s life was a form of penance for Anchee Min, penance for accepting Mao’s assertion that Buck was evil without questioning it.
It’s an interesting story, and I enjoyed reading it. The first third of the book, during the girls’ childhood, did a great job establishing the characters and life in the backwaters of China. But as the girls grow into young women, the story starts speeding up, and the account becomes rather rushed. Willow’s first marriage is barely mentioned and glossed over; Pearl is overseas for years at a time and disappears from the narrative entirely. By the time Mao came to power, I felt like I was watching a movie with the fast-forward button on. I could tell what was happening, but I was missing the nuance and depth that really makes the story exciting.
One effect of the book is it made me really want to read more of Pearl S. Buck’s books. I read The Good Earth in high school and Imperial Woman a few years back, but there are so many other titles to check out!
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