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Peal Buck was born in China in 1892, the 5th of 7 children born to American missionary parents. She learned Chinese before she learned English, and only realised that she was considered a foreigner when the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 forced her family out of her childhood home. Later she became famous for her novels and short stories set in China, especially The Good Earth. She won America's most famous literary prize, the Pulitzer, in 1932, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. Yet her work is mostly forgotten in the US and Europe, and in the country she loved, her books were banned by Mao's regime after they came to power in 1949.
In Burying the Bones, Hilary Spurling presents a fascinating and readable account of the life of this writer, with all its troubles and contradictions. She has drawn on Buck's own writings and those of some of her friends and family. Spurling is the author of many biographies, but is not an expert on China and found that her research was much more restricted for this book than for others, with just 6 weeks in China and very limited access to research materials not available outside that country. She acknowledges clearly these limitations, which were clearly very frustrating for this professional biographer.
More than a third of the book is about Pearl Buck's family and her childhood, up to her first return to the US to go to college, and this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Buck wrote a lot about her childhood and growing up. Spurling is clearly interested in women's history and the feminist concerns of the period as they are revealed in Buck's life and work. Buck's mother Carie tragically lost her first 4 children to illness and malnutrition, and then stood up to her husband, insisting that she and the remaining offspring needed a proper home, not to travel around after him. Later, her determination that her daughter should have a university education must have been a rarity in 1910, although from Spurling's account of her years at Randolph-Macon in Virginia, and from other books I've read, American women's educational opportunities were far ahead of those offered in Britain at the time. Buck often wrote about young people struggling to adapt to a move between cultures, between Asia and America.
Buck initially returned to China to see and look after her sick mother in 1914, but stayed for another 20 years, in which she married, wrote her most famous book and several others, had a child who had various learning and physical disabilities, divorced and remarried. She left China with her new husband for various reasons including arrangements for Carol's education and care, and her pariah status among China's expat community (mostly missionaries) as a divorcee. Although the first half of her life, that spent in China, inspired most of her work, and she left the country she loved so much very reluctantly, there is plenty more about her later life back in the US, and this was a life that may have been very difficult and sad at times, but it was clearly never boring. With Richard, she adopted 7 babies within just a few years, intending that they would look after their brood on their own, and she continued her own writing career, bits of this made me feel tired just reading them.
Although the subtitle of the book is "Pearl Buck in China", Spurling actually covers the whole of her subject's life, up until her death aged 80 in 1973, quite comprehensively. There are detailed endnotes in the book though many of them just clarify which book a quotation comes from and I think it's not really necessary to look all the references in the way I did. There is a very comprehensive index. More interestingly for the general reader, there are 16 pages of black and white photographs of Pearl Buck and most of the significant people in her life in the middle of the book. There is a map of "Pearl Buck's China" showing the significant places in her and her family's life at the start of the book. I do think that one extra addition to this book would have been useful - a bibliography of Peal Buck's many novels, short stories and non fiction writings.
Burying the Bones is a very readable account of an interesting life. I say this as someone who has never read any of Pearl Buck's books. I might at least have to read The Good Earth now.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk.
Published by Profile Books April 2011 (the hardback was published in 2010)
Format: Paperback 340 pages
ISBN: 978 1 861 978 523