Pearl of China by Anchee Min
Life was not easy for Willow, a young Chinese girl in a small village at the end of the 19th century. Her family had little money, and survived mostly on what she and her father could steal, until her father was taken under the wing of Absalom, the white Christian missionary in the area. As Willow’s father was becoming a leader of the Church under Absalom’s guidance, Willow is beginning a friendship with Absalom’s daughter, Pearl. Having lived in China since she was mere months old, Pearl feels more Chinese than American: hiding her blonde hair under black wool caps and singing traditional Chinese songs.
Willow and Pearl grow older, but they do not grow apart, even when Pearl has to return to the U.S. for college and other life events. Pearl begins to find her worth and her life’s work in writing fiction about China, but fiction that rings true to the experiences of the peasants she has lived among for nearly her entire life. Towards the middle of the 20th century, however, there is a crest in animosity towards foreigners, and Pearl is forced to flee to America. After Mao comes to power, Willow’s life is threatened by her lifelong friendship with the writer who is now being labeled a cultural imperialist.
I was initially slightly disappointed with this book, because in some ways it was more about Pearl’s semi-fictional friend Willow than it was about Pearl S. Buck herself. However, as I read it I became enamored of Pearl’s story set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century China. Although it took some time for me to become fully engrossed in the story, I soon found myself lost in the lives of Willow and Pearl.
What really gave this book a special heart, I think, is Anchee Min’s own back story with Pearl S. Buck. Min was forced to denounce Buck as a youth during the Cultural Revolution. After she came to the United States and became a published author, she was gifted a copy of “The Good Earth” by a reader. Buck’s story touched Min so deeply that the idea for “Pearl of China” was born.
Highly recommended for a look at the history of modern China, as well as of author Pearl S. Buck.