Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pearl of China by Anchee Min

The life of Nobel prize-winning author Pearl Buck is fictionalized in this novel of friendship that encompasses a century of Chinese history. I listened to a marvelous Recorded Books edition (10.45 hours) read by Angela Lin. Lin pronounces the names of places and people with Chinese tonal inflections and performs the English and Chinese songs acapello (instead of speaking the words) -what a delightful bonus!

Born in 1892, Pearl was the daughter of Christian missionaries and grew up not only fluent in several Chinese dialects but with a Chinese sensibility. Her father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was probably insane (which might be part of the missionary job description) although he endeared himself eventually to his congregation. It was an interesting juxtaposition to be listening to this audiobook over the same period of time that I was reading The Poisonwood Bible.

Anchee Min invented a Chinese lifelong friend for Pearl: Willow Yee. Willow describes living through chaotic changes in China, from the overthrow of the last Emperor, through the brutal Cultural Revolution (a time when it was dangerous to be a friend of "American cultural imperialist" Pearl Buck) and eventually the improvements that followed the arrest of Madame Mao. Pearl escaped being murdered during the violence in Nanking in 1927. She left China permanently in 1934, but she and her family are apparently still remembered fondly in China.

Chinese authors of Pearl Buck's time considered peasants unworthy subjects and so Pearl's novels were unusual not only in that Chinese peasants are the central characters, but also that she portrays them with humanity and compassion. Buck's The Good Earth has been on my to-read list for years and now one of my book discussion groups will be discussing it in July. Pearl of China has made me even more keen to read it.

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