Pearl S. Buck

I was introduced to her when I read the book “The Good Earth” as a mid-schooler and it left its mark. Reading opened the world to me. Ms. Buck opened up the curious world of the East and the struggles they face and pulled me into the story. Her writing was exquisite.

It’s the birthday of writer Pearl S. Buck, born in Hillsboro, West Virginia (1892). Her parents were Christian missionaries, and she was raised in China from the age of three months. She said: “I spoke Chinese first, and more easily. […] I did not consider myself a white person in those days.” She was tutored in the mornings by her mother, but spent the afternoons with her beloved Chinese nurse, who told her stories and took her to visit friends, where young Pearl listened to women gossip. She played with Chinese friends, joined their parties, and hid her blond hair underneath a hat.

She married an agricultural missionary. They lived in northern China and then Nanking, where she taught English literature. In 1920, she gave birth to a daughter, Carol, who had a severe developmental disability. Her husband did not know how to cope with Carol and withdrew from his family. At times, Buck doted on Carol, desperately hoping that her condition would improve. And other times, she was frustrated and embarrassed by the girl, who would scream and cry for hours on end. She said, “Sometimes I can scarcely bear to look at other children and see what she might have become.”

By the winter of 1927-28, Buck was living in Shanghai, and she was unhappy. Earlier that year, they had been forced to evacuate their home in Nanking after a violent skirmish called the Nanking Incident — among those targeted were white foreigners, and their home was destroyed. She had just completed the manuscript of her first novel, working in her own private space in the attic, but the only copy was destroyed by looters. The Red Cross sent them to Japan with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and they lived there for seven months before moving to Shanghai. Her husband returned to Nanking for work, so she was left caring for the children, sharing a run-down rental house in Shanghai with two other families. Her marriage was deteriorating. Her salary was tiny, and her husband forced her to sign it over to him and then ask for an allowance. She knew that the only hope of giving Carol long-term care was in the United States, but her husband didn’t want to leave China. She realized that she might end up responsible for Carol and that she had to figure out a way to provide for her.

  This is how she shook up my world! Finding hidden truths!

So she returned to writing, not out of passion but as a way to earn money. She had written a few stories here and there, and the novel that had been destroyed, and she felt it was her best chance of earning a living. She found an old trade magazine in a Shanghai bookstore, and it listed three literary agents, so she wrote to all three. Two of them told her there was no market in America for Chinese subjects. The third, David Lloyd, agreed to take her on, and remained her agent for 30 years.

In 1929, Buck took Carol back to America to find her long-term care. Touring institutions depressed her, and although she found a place she liked, she said that leaving Carol was the hardest thing she did in her life. She took out a loan from a member of the Mission Board to afford the care. At the same time, her first novel, East Wind, West Wind (1930), was accepted for publication by John Day Company. Her agent had sent it to 25 publishers, and John Day was the last on his list; if they refused it, he was going to withdraw the manuscript. John Day’s president and publisher, Richard Walsh, later became Buck’s lover, and eventually her husband. She started writing her second novel, The Good Earth (1931), as soon as she got back to China, and it took her just three months. Buck was floored when it was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club and she was sent a check for $4,000 — with that money she could pay for several years of Carol’s schooling. The Good Earth sold nearly 2 million copies in its first year of publication, and was the best-selling book of 1931 and 1932. She earned more than $100,000 dollars in a year and a half, and put $40,000 toward Carol’s care. She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938.

~ Garrison Keillor


Pearl S Buck, Opening Doors to the World
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