“The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck is a Pulitzer Prize winning classic that is often a required reading in high school. For some reason, I missed this one and have had zero interest in reading it. However, it was a free e-book so my frugal side took the bait. I’m really glad. This an interesting, well-written tale that gives readers a realistic glimpse of life in rural China around late 1800s to 1920s.
The main character Wang Lung is a poor farmer whose livelihood is dependent on his harvest. Over the course of the novel, he and his family would survive through famine and droughts, and eventually become a well-to-do and respected rich family, although money doesn’t buy peace and contentment.
There is a lot to gain from reading this book but since this is a finance site, I’m focusing on things I learned that are money-related.
Perhaps it’s the legacy of serfdom in Europe and similar situations throughout the world that has led to the home ownership dream of today. If you think about it, landowners are called landlords for a reason. In the old days, poor people worked on lands that they rented and rarely, if ever, raised above their station; only landowners could make enough money to thrive and get richer. Wang Lung’s path to riches is through land ownership and its importance is made clear throughout the book.
Lesson 2: Don’t take social safety nets for granted.
It’s certainly common to say our government sucks. However, I still believe that there are good people working within that giant bureaucracy and that the intent is good. Life would be brutal for many If we did not have government social safety nets and left charity work to corporations or kind-hearted individuals
In the book, Wang Lung and his family become homeless and barely survive on the streets of a rich Southern city. There is one charity that provides porridge for a small fee. Otherwise there is nothing in place to help the poor or middle-class. The rich continue to eat well and wear silk while many children die from hunger. This sort of inequality leads to instability and revolution.
Lesson 3: Yikes, Women Need To Earn Their Own Money!
Back in the day and even today in rural parts of China (and many parts of the world), people really, really, valued sons only. Even worse for poor women, they had to worked hard in the household and yet were treated as second-class citizens. Girls were bought and sold like property. If you were a slave for a rich family, you worked from dusk til dawn. If you were a pretty slave, then you were at the mercy of any male in the household. I’m just glad I was born in the 20th century and have the opportunity to earn my own way.
Lesson 4: Children Can Be Very Ungrateful
Wang Lung is a dutiful son and father. He loves his children and tries to do everything for them. In the end, however, his two older sons don’t really appreciate all that he (and their mother) had done for them. They don’t value the land that Wang Lung loved so much.
Stating the obvious, I know. This book is a good reminder of how tough life can be and how difficult it is to climb out of poverty. The descriptions of starving children are particularly heartbreaking.