Monday, March 7, 2011

"Amerasian" Advocate and Author Pearl S. Buck

I always intend to write these posts earlier in my day but I am awful about being sidetracked or distracted. I don't know if it's quite ADHD as much as maybe just me trying to cram too many projects into each day to the point of feeling like I got virtually nothing done lol. ANYHOOO... yeah so anyone read much Pearl S. Buck? For many, The Good Earth was required reading in school - that's where I first heard of her, and I intend to reread that one some day as I do remember how much I enjoyed it the first time. That "first time" was about 16 years ago though, so the details of that particular book are a bit hazy in my memory. This time around however, I  decided to delve into three of her other novels, two of the Asian theme she was famous for, and a lesser known Civil War era novel.                                                                                                                                                

THE ANGRY WIFE is the story of the Delaney family, particularly its patriarch, Pierce, trying to put their lives back together in the aftermath of the Civil War. Pierce is trying to accept that times have changed, former slaves are freed people now, and if he wants any bit of the old glamorous life he once had back, he cannot rest on his laurels. Pierce seems ready to move forward but unfortunately his spoiled, petulant wife refuses to accept the freeing of the slaves, loudly protests them being given wages and damn near has her head explode when she discovers that her brother-in-law, Pierce's brother Tom, has taken Bettina, one of the mulatto servants, as his sort of common law wife. At points throughout the story, I felt pity for Pierce being stuck in the middle of trying to let his brother live his life and having to listen to his wife shriek about what an abomination the world was becoming with all the talk of equality. Then I thought, "Wait a minute, this guy is being a wuss and constantly caving into his wife's every little complaint and whim!" Note to guys: it's more manly and attractive of you if you put your foot down once in awhile and let us know how YOU want things (we as women just don't tell you that - it's not ladylike to admit it I guess lol). Out of the three Buck novels I read this round, this one was my favorite. The ending made me shake my head and want to slap Pierce - but that's just me...

The other two novels, THE NEW YEAR and THE HIDDEN FLOWER were of Buck's familiar Asian - themed works. In The New Year, Christopher Winters is a Korean War veteran and lawyer running for the office of governor in Pennsylvania when he receives a letter from his illegitimate son in Korea. Yeaaa... about that... Winters got married just days before being shipped to Korea, got to Korea and after a time discovered he was pretty lonely, homesick and afraid he could be killed any day, much like any soldier would be in a foreign country. He meets Soonya Kim, a local girl, enjoys her company and soon has a relationship going with her. He and Soonya move into a small house in Korea together, while he is stationed there, and since it isn't really mentioned, I'm guessing he doesn't bother to tell his wife back in the States that he's shacking up with a Korean woman. Soonya inevitably becomes pregnant, and conveniently enough, Winters' tour ends about a month after his son's birth. He gives her his version of "I'll call ya" and goes back home. Fast forward years later, his son is now 12 and wondering "what's up dad?" In another interesting twist, in the years following his return from Korea, Winters and his wife have been unable to conceive a child of their own. You can imagine the complications that ensue in his marriage and political pursuits from there. The story here wasn't bad, but OMG the dialogue of these characters was so textbook grammatically correct that it was unnatural! If your wife calls you out about not mentioning you had a kid while you were living overseas, the natural response is not usually a calm "Oh yes, quite right my darling, I was most terribly out of line." No, in real life there are tears, probably some yelling, maybe some "get the hell outta here!" but when you make dialogue too prim and proper it can only remind one of a ridiculously funny Monty Python sketch. I found a slightly more promising story in The Hidden Flower. Here, the story takes place in Japan and involves a US Army Lieutenant, Allen Kennedy, and a local doctor's daughter he meets, Josui Sakai. After only a handful of secret rendevous and "hey funny that I bump into you here" moments, Josui and Allen decide they are in love and come hell or high water WILL be together, though both of their respective families oppose the match wholeheartedly, partly because both Josui and Allen are unofficially intended for other people, at least in the eyes of their parents. This story was beautifully written, and gives wonderful glimpses into all the great traditions of Japanese culture. My one gripe with this story is that if one is going to write such a potentially powerful love story, it should not be rushed. I just didn't find it believable that Josui and Allen, having never known love before, having nothing to compare it to, could decide after only a scant few words exchanged, that they had eternal love between them. Thankfully, this little "flaw" in the story actually makes the ending work better, though even the ending was a bit ridiculous as well, almost as if everything that just transpired in the last 180 odd pages could be easily settled with a good, firm handshake or something... 

There were a few elements that I noticed popped up repeatedly in these works, such as the use of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia as a escape/vacation locale for characters, as well as the topic of "half-breed" children (discussed in each of these novels). I also wondered how she wrote so well regarding Asian cultures. When I started reading up on her life, it all started making sense, and I also saw that her own real life read much like some of her novels!

 Buck was born Pearl Sydenstriker on June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia (West Virginia / Virginia area was the location of Malvern plantation in The Angry Wife). Her parents worked as missionaries and moved the family to Chinkiang, China, along the Yangzi River - an area mentioned in The Good Earth, (now known as Zhenjiang) not long after Pearl's birth. Pearl was known in China as Sai Zhenzhu. With this upbringing, Pearl learned Chinese before she learned English! Imagine being a child fluent in two of the world's most difficult languages to learn! It was a happy existence, until her family was forced out of China during the Boxer Rebellion, when groups of Chinese native rose up in opposition to Western influence and Christianity they felt was taking over Chinese culture. Pearl was able to return to China at the age of 15 when she was enrolled in a boarding school in Shanghai. She also worked at Door Of Hope, a shelter for Chinese women and girls who were destitute, homeless or trying to get out of the prostitution or slave trades they were often sold into. In 1910, Pearl traveled back to the States to pursue a psychology degree at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. After graduating in 1914, she taught psychology there until her mother became ill and Pearl decided to return to China.

Back in China, Pearl married agriculturalist John Lossing Buck and continued work as a teacher and Presbyterian missionary. She also served as interpreter for her husband. By the 1920s, she was working as a English and American Literature professor at Nanking University.

Pearl had only one biological child, a daughter named Carol, who was unfortunately mentally disabled due to the genetic metabolic disease, phenylketonuria or PKU. During her pregnancy, Pearl's doctor found a tumor in her uterus which required a hysterectomy immediately after Carol's birth.This may have provided inspiration for the infertility of Christopher Winter's wife in The New Year.

 Pearl returned to the States in 1924 to seek medical help for her daughter's condition. {On an interesting sidenote, the result of Pearl's tireless work trying to find the best treatments for her daughter is that now testing all babies for PKU after birth is standard procedure in US hospitals! } During this time, Pearl also completed her M.A. in literature from Cornell University. She returned to China in 1927 only to experience yet again her family being evacuated to Japan during a civil war in China.
Carol Buck

Not long after, Pearl and John Buck divorced, and Pearl married her publisher, Richard Walsh, who owned John Day Company publishing firm (I wondered about this, because I noticed several of Pearl's first edition novels are listed with John Day - guess if you want to get your work out there as a writer, marrying a publisher with his own friggin company doesn't hurt! : - P). They moved to Pennsylvania (setting for The New Year), and Pearl continued to write, sometimes under the pen name "John Sedges", as well as expand her efforts as an advocate for civil rights and mental disorder/disability awareness. In 1938 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature - the 1st American woman as well as the 3rd American in history to accomplish this! While living with Walsh in the US, they adopted several more children and remained together until Walsh's death.

During World War 2, Pearl found herself struggling with cultural identity, for though she was a US born citizen, she grew up in and traveled throughout China and Japan. Having these nationalities at war with each other, I'm sure it must have been confusing to know which side to be on! As a result,in 1941 Pearl created the East-West Association, an organization dedicated to improving relations between Caucasians and Asians. Later, in 1949, she created the Welcome House, an adoption agency specializing in what she coined as "Amerasian" children, the half-breed, illegitimate, sometimes orphaned but usually just unwanted children of Asian native women and US G.I.'s. In 1965, the Pearl S. Buck Foundation also set up a branch office in Korea, offering a welfare program for "Amerasian" children not placed with the orphanages and their mothers.

This is the Pearl S Buck Memorial Hall built in Korea
 as an acknowledgement
 of all her efforts for Asian people around the world.

Pearl died March 6, 1973 at the age of 80 in Vermont (meaning yesterday would have been her 119th birthday - totally unintentional to write this post on that date but hey Happy Birthday girl!!). All of her original manuscripts and papers are archived and divided between Radolph Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, VA (home of the famous Jack Daniels distillery!)  and the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation in Hillsboro, West Virginia.  And White Sulphur Springs, WV? Well, the massive Greenbrier resort there is only 25 miles south of Hillsboro - so I'm sure it was a desirable and nearby vacation spot for Pearl's friends and family, or at the very least she was aware of the popularity and proximity of the place, thus making it a nice locale to repeatedly pop up in her novels.

Look at these shots of Greenbrier - the place is so gargantuan that they call themselves "America's Resort" (though from what I can tell from reading and viewing pictures,  it looks preeeettty elitist to me!) That inside shot is insane!