Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2018

Letter from Peking, by Pearl S Buck

This book is a bit of a find… a hardback first edition of a Nobel Prize winner, still in its original dust-jacket. And the Nobel Prize winner is none other than Pearl S. Buck.  This is her Wikipedia entry (links removed):

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (June 26, 1892 – March 6, 1973; also known by her Chinese name Sai Zhenzhu; Chinese: 賽珍珠) was an American writer and novelist. As the daughter of missionaries, Buck spent most of her life before 1934 in Zhenjiang, China. Her novel The Good Earth was the best-selling fiction book in the United States in 1931 and 1932 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1938, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

And also one of only fourteen women to win the prize.

My copy of The Good Earth is an old 1970s paperback so it was nice to see Letter from Peking with its quaint illustration.  The artist, CWB, whoever he/she was, has captured not only the lovely autumn trees on a Vermont farm, but also the body language of a woman who can’t quite believe what she is reading in her letter.  But, prompted by the blurb’s statement that the book is wholly without propagandist aim I think there may have also been another purpose to this illustration, and that may have been to reassure potential readers with the book’s American setting.  It was 1957, during the Cold War, and the Communist Revolution in China had consolidated its grip on power.  As we see in the book, amongst ordinary people there was a real fear of China and suspicion of anyone favourable to it.  Even a writer as well-loved as Pearl Buck may have needed to be careful.

The contents of the letter are not fully revealed until the end of the book, but Gerald’s words haunt the story.  This couple has been separated for five years now, Gerald staying in China after the Communists took power, while sending Elizabeth and their son Rennie back to safety in America.  Letters have been intermittent, and always sent via clandestine means.  This one has been mailed from Hong Kong, and it is inside an envelope addressed by a strange hand.

I read the letter, over and over again.  In the silent autumn air, no wind stirring, the bright leaves floated down.  I could hear Gerald’s voice speaking the words he had written.

My dear wife:

First, before I say what must be said, let me tell you that I love you. Whatever I do now, remember that it is you I love. If you never receive a letter from me again, know that in my heart I write you every day. (p.10)

The rest of the letter affects her so profoundly that she puts it away in a drawer, determined never to read it again.  But she is not angry.  Because Gerald is bi-racial and she had to stand up to her racist mother to marry him, she believes that there is something very special about their love and is determined not to relinquish it.  This faith in her husband’s love and fidelity sustains her over the difficult days ahead.

Born in China to a Chinese woman and his American father known as ‘Baba’, Gerald met Elizabeth when he came to America to study at Harvard.  She went with him when he returned to his homeland, and they lived very happily there, their contentment marred only by the death of a baby daughter.  Americans were not welcome after the Revolution, but it was always intended that the separation would be temporary and that they would be reunited. They did not expect suspicion to fall on Gerald because he had always been accepted in China as one of their own.

Rennie, as he comes of age in Vermont, however, is uncomfortable about his Chinese heritage.  He is not obviously bi-racial in appearance and he conceals his parentage from his first girlfriend.  Elizabeth is uneasy about this fledgling relationship, and meddles, using his Chinese antecedents to expose the racism of the girl and her family.  Like any all-American boy, Rennie takes a dim view of this.

The story is told entirely from Elizabeth’s point-of-view, written as if the text is a diary.  She is reflective, but not entirely self-aware.  When they travel to Kansas to rescue Baba in his old age, she doesn’t respond to the neighbour’s accusation that they were folks who let an old man wander around alone.  Yet she admits to herself that they were selfish and wrong to believe that anyone who reached America had reached heaven. 

We thought of Baba as safe merely because he had left the troubled provinces of China.  We had a few letters from him, placid letters, saying that he was comfortable and we were not to worry about him, that he had found friends.  And beset with our own worries, in wars and dangers, we simply forgot him.  (p.56)

It’s not the only time she forgets about him.

Most of what I see at Goodreads focusses on the race and cultural issues that arise in the book, and although it’s not great literature in terms of style or form, Letter from Peking is a milestone because of the way that it tackles the prejudice both implicit and explicit in the experiences of Elizabeth’s son.  But IMO there’s more to it than that:

When I look at my reading record, I don’t seem to have come across another book from this era that features a sole parent.  The book shows the loneliness, the doubts about how to raise her son and his growing urge towards independence, and having to fend off unwanted attentions from men (nice though they are).  It shows her managing the farm, making decisions alone, putting in long hours of hard outdoor work and having to negotiate with a patronising man over the purchase of some sheep.  Though the culture of filial piety and duty is very strong in China, it shows that it is she who takes on responsibility for Gerald’s elderly father, and it is she who tends him as his body and mind fail.

For a book that’s over 60 years old now, its message still reverberates today.

Author: Pearl S. Buck
Title: Letter from Peking
Publisher: Methuen, London, 1957,
ISBN: none.  First edition, hardback.
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind, $5.00.


Responses

  1. This is indeed a good find. I’ve not read Pearl Buck but she has been one of those authors whose shadow has always been in my background of book knowlwdge.

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    • You know, I think you’d love her work. It’s decades since I read The Good Earth and yet I still remember her respectful way of writing about Chinese peasants, and I read Peony too, though that was not quite so memorable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a very early copy!! How I loved that book, all her books. I read them all when I was too young really,but then I read everything when I was too young. I don’t think it does any harm at all – they still leave a lasting impression.

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    • I know what you mean about reading things too young: I read all the classics in my parents house before I was 16, and they turned out to be entirely different books when I re-read them in adulthood.

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  3. I read Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth and watched the film adaptation as a middle-school student. Inherent in this book and Letter from Peking, is the intimate depiction of women overcoming societal hardships and finding fulfillment in life despite them. Prior to reading your review Lisa, I wasn’t aware of Buck’s fiction based in the United States. A question I would pose to readers who has familiarity with the author’s fiction – Does Buck provide an accurate, realistic portrayal of domestic/international life and community within her fiction?

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    • Hi Sonia, I’ll have to turn that one over to readers. Although I’ve also read Peony and The Good Earth, that was decades ago and she wrote heaps of other books that I’ve never even seen.
      But I would say this: self-confessed flaws and all, Elizabeth in this one is a bit too good to be true, and she idealises life in (preCommunist) China. But that is why the form of her narrative is well-chosen by the author; we would expect a woman missing her husband and her easier life in China to feel nostalgic and give an account through rose-coloured glasses. IMO the form of the novel is itself an alert to the reader to be alert to the unreliable aspects of the narration.

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  4. INTERESTING, CHINA

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  5. How fascinating and what a find as you say. I’ve never read any Buck but she obviously warrants a look!

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    • LOL We blogging gals ought to make a bit of a project to read all the women who’ve won the Nobel. I’ve got a copy of Selma Lagerlof’s Gosta Berling’s Saga – she was the first woman to win it in 1909, so that’s going to be next for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I read that book in my younger life too which fed my interest in all things Chinese at the time. Another author was Han Suyin and both these writers had a profound effect on me. What an exciting time it was too when you are discovering new books and learning about another world so far removed from your own. Will have to check her out once again.

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    • Yes, I know what you mean. I was a child when I discovered a series about some twins who lived in places all over the world, and I trace my interest in other countries back to that series.

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  7. $5 at the OpShop! Well done, Lisa. Love the cover. I still need to read Buck, something which I’m embarrassed about. I’ve given her to people – like ma-in-law – but not managed to read her myself.

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    • Ha, you can borrow the books back, eh?!
      Seriously, they are quick and easy to read. Her books aren’t long, and she has a very plain style of writing with short sentences and an undemanding vocabulary. I reckon I read this one in about four hours. It’s the quality of her ideas and her distinctive way of looking at the world that makes her worth reading. She must have been a breath of fresh air in the monocultural world of her era, and I think she would have been so pleased to see the way societies like ours have embraced her ideals of inclusivity. .

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      • Ha ha, Lisa I. can, and that’s often the plan… What you say about Buck is what I’ve heard. NOW, where can I find 4 hours? I need fewer commitments – and I suppose to not spend 4 hours on Monday Musings (which also resulted in my correcting the articles in Trove. Traps all around me!)

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        • Here’s a confession of something really daft that I did this week. I was trying to remember the name of a book on a certain theme and so I thought, I should categorise the common themes. I spent a day doing this, getting about 200 books done – needing to reread reviews to remember the theme for some books and really struggling to ID a theme for others – and then I thought, what am I doing?!!!!!! If I can’t remember a book, well it’s just too bad, I am not doing a PhD or trying to be an expert here. So I deleted everything I’d done and have promised myself not to be so silly again.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You know what – you’ll use it. One day you will be writing something and suddenly your theme thing will come back to you and be useful!!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Love it Lisa … I think that’s the librarian brain working. We want to be able to classify everything to make it easy to find but we can’t always second guess everything we might want to find later can we?!

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            • That’s exactly it. But also, the investment of time, to go back through every book I’ve read over 10 years to ID its themes, a mammoth task and I realised that I could read three or four books in the time it would have taken to do it.

              Liked by 1 person

  8. I used to be on the lookout for single mothers (up to the 1950s) but Caddie is the only roughly contemporaneous one that comes to mind. Ernestine Hill now pops up too. She was a real single mother in that she was unmarried but she didn’t write about it I don’t think. My touchstone is Eliz. Gaskell’s Ruth, I really must put up a review.

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    • I suppose there are plenty of widowed mothers in Oz Lit but one single mother who I should have thought of earlier is Mrs Mahoney from HHR’s Fortunes

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      • I’d forgotten about Caddie…
        In this story Elizabeth is not a widow, she is still married… separated and still in love with her husband. And that’s part of the problem for her, that people don’t understand why she doesn’t divorce him, and she can’t explain why because the issue is clouded by Cold War suspicions.

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    • Have you read Ruth recently Bill? I’d love to see your review. I read it too long ago to write a post on it.

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      • Not recently Sue, but I will review it ‘soon’.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I read it ages ago too, I’d like to see a review of it:)

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