Willow Yee lived in Chin-kiang, a small city far away from Peking, on the south side of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province. She lived there with her father and grandmother, Nai Nai. Her mother had died after her father had rented her out to pay his debts and she became pregnant. He had given her "magic root powder" from the local herbalist. It was meant to kill the fetus but also killed her!
Willow was seven-years-old in 1897 and she was terribly afraid she was going to lose her Nai Nai like she lost her mother. Grandma was receiving men in the back of the bungalow they lived in. While Nai Nai was busy entertaining her men, Willow and her father worked as seasonal farm hands, he planting rice, wheat and cotton and Willow planting soybeans. In the off season her father stole and Willow, now 8-years-old, was herself a seasoned thief. Hunger does terrible things to people.
One day they met a missionary named Absalom Sydenstricker who walked the streets holding a Bible and proclaiming God was people's best friend. He held his church services in an old store. Willow's father befriended him for the sole purpose of stealing from him. Absalom's wife, Carie, was beside herself and in tears when he even stole the churches doormat. After stealing his wallet, Willow hurried down a side street and out of town. She felt as though someone was watching and following her so she took off running as fast as she could for the hills, after a couple of miles she stopped and sat down. As Willow began to open the wallet she heard a noise and new someone was approaching her. Suddenly she heard: "...you stole my father's wallet"! It turned out to be Absalom and Carie's daughter, Pearl. Pearl would eventually become known as, none other than Pearl S. Buck!!
I have read all of Pearl's books but had never really read too much about her personal life. I assumed she was a happy, contented, well-educated woman and author all of her life, but I was terribly mistaken. What I learned in this book about Pearl's personal life was truly sad and literally devastating. The book is rich in history, stories of wars and revolutions, love of family and the importance of friendship. The friendship between Willow and Pearl is all consuming and will touch the very deepest parts of your heart. The scene at the grave near the end of the book will have you weeping from the beautiful one woman service.
This was a smashing novel and well-written, I didn't want to put it down. If you haven't read any of Pearl's books, I would highly recommend "The Good Earth" along with this one, of course.
April 28, 2011