A few years ago I a read a book titled Red Azalea by Anchee Min, her memoir of growing up in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. It was fascinating to read this book knowing that we were the same age, but growing up under two very different sets of circumstances. At seventeen she was sent to a labor collective to plant rice in a place rice did not grow. At 17 I was having a great time in high school in the USA, living life of freedom.
A few weeks ago, I heard NPR‘s Melissa Block interviewing Anchee Min on All Things Considered. She was discussing her new book, Pearl of China. (You may read or listen to the interview here). My ears immediately pricked up. This new book was about Pearl Buck.
Growing up, I knew about Pearl Buck. Her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Good Earth, was on our family bookshelf and I read it for pleasure and for a school assignment. Her story could only have been told by someone who knew the Chinese people well.
Anchee Min knew of Pearl Buck, too. At 17, she was asked to denounce Pearl Buck as an “American cultural imperialist”. Students were instructed to denounce everything American at the time. It was part of Madame Mao’s campaign to prevent Pearl Buck from visiting China with President Nixon in 1972. Buck was heartbroken when Madame Mao and high-level Chinese officials prevented her from visiting China.
Fast forward to 1997.
“I was in Chicago in a bookstore doing a reading, and a reader came to me. She says, ‘Do you know Pearl S. Buck?’ And before I could answer, she gave me a paperback. She says, ‘This is a gift. I just want you to know that Pearl Buck taught me to love Chinese people.’ And that hit me,” Min says.
She read the book on a plane from Chicago to Los Angeles.
“I couldn’t help myself, and I broke down and sobbed because I have never seen anyone, including our Chinese authors, who wrote our peasants the way Pearl Buck did, with such love, affection and humanity. And it was at that very moment Pearl of China was conceived.”
I immediately got on the waiting list at my library for this book. This book is fiction, focusing on a friendship between two girls growing up in China around 1900. Willow is the only child of a destitute Chinese family, Pearl the daughter of Christian missionaries. Pearl loves all things Chinese, and is embarrassed by her blonde hair – she wears a black knitted cap to cover her curls. Willow’s father sees economic benefit in befriending Pearl’s father and becomes involved in his church. Willow loves the songs and also the meals served at the church. The girls become fast friends.
Over their lifetimes they both have happiness and hardship. Pearl’s family is finally forced to flee China ahead of angry mobs. Willow remains in China but her ties to “American imperialists” put her life and the lives of her family in danger. Pearl becomes a writer as does Willow. Willow suffers in China and always hopes to see her friend Pearl again.
This is a book you will not be able to put down and will have you on your computer researching Pearl Buck, Chinese history AND Anchee Min. I have never read a biography of Pearl Buck other than on Wikipedia but the information there coincides with the fictional account of her life in China in this book. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Anchee Min explains how she decided to tell Pearl’s story from a Chinese perspective and what her research in China uncovered.
Put this on your summer reading list – you won’t be disappointed! Then read Red Azalea next…Anchee Min is a great storyteller.