Thursday, August 9, 2012

Meeting Pearl S. Buck

In the 1930s through 1950s, Pearl S. Buck was among the most respected of American writers. Not only were her books, especially The Good Earth, popular with the public, but they led to her winning both the Pulitzer Prize (1932) and the Nobel Prize (1938). Yet today few people still read her work. I admit that, until recently, I had never read anything by Pearl S. Buck, although I have two of her novels in my personal library.

Then this summer, Pearl S. Buck came to Ashland, Ohio, where I live. It wasn't really Pearl Buck, of course. She died in 1973. It was an actress portraying Buck in a summer Chautauqua series that also brought Peewee Reese, Joe McCarthy, Rachel Carson and Minnie Pearl back to life. I was impressed enough by the Buck presentation to read a few of her short stories.

These stories, although artfully written, are probably not ambiguous enough to satisfy the most elite literary critics. And Buck was partial to happy, or at least positive, endings, which may have pleased Saturday Evening Post readers but seem somehow dated today. Yet I enjoyed the stories very much.

In "A Certain Star," an atomic scientist who has ignored his family for years because of his work, takes his wife and reluctant teenage children on a Christmas retreat to try to reconnect with them.

Buck, although an American by birth, was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China and spent her childhood and youth in China. Yet she also lived in Japan for a time, and "The Beauty" is about a Japanese woman who decides to go to a bar to confront her husband, who spends every night there in the company of bar girls. Instead she engages in conversation with one beautiful bar girl with her own complaint about the woman's husband and about men in general. This conversation leads to a surprising solution to both women's frustrations.

"With a Delicate Air" tells what happens when a couple's son brings home a Japanese wife. This beautiful young woman, submissive both to her husband and his parents, enchants both of the men in the household, while upsetting her mother-in-law.

A Chinese story, "Parable of Plain People," is a simple tale about a man who would be very content with his life if not for oppressive overlords and their unceasing demands.

In "Enchantment," a plain housewife sees her husband in the company of a beautiful woman. It is all very innocent, but the incident momentarily staggers the wife's sense of security and love.

These are lovely stories that help explain why Pearl S. Buck was once one of America's best-loved writers.

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