It’s odd that Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973) isn’t better known today. As a Nobel Prize-winning author and tireless human rights campaigner, she deserves to be an icon for modern Western progressives. And deserving aside, she simply had an extraordinary life that makes for one hell of a gripping story.

With Burying the Bones, Hilary Spurling has produced a beautifully written biography that does justice to Pearl Buck’s life and work. Spurling is an experienced, award-winning biographer, and it shows. You come away feeling you know Buck as a person and understand the creative inspiration behind her novels. Spurling’s job was made easier by her subject being so interesting, and by an abundance of primary source material; on top of two autobiographies, Buck wrote a biography for her mother, The Exile, and another for her father, The Fighting Angel, (both 1936).

Born Pearl Sydenstricker in 1892 to Southern Presbyterian missionaries, she grew up in Zhenjiang, a city on the southern banks of the Yangtze. Pearl’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a humorless Christian zealot who had little love for China, its culture, or its people. His preaching – which was as unsuccessful as it was strident – took him over a wide area, and he was often absent from home. It was a strained, sad household; three of Pearl’s elder siblings had died of disease (from dysentery, cholera, and malaria), and an older brother was away at school in the United States, leaving the girl short of likely companions.

Spurling quotes Pearl, “I spoke Chinese first, and more easily …. I did not consider myself a white person in those days.” The young girl was not shy exploring the neighborhood, though this could be rather gruesome. Spurling writes, “Sometimes Pearl found bones lying in the grass, fragments of limbs, mutilated hands, once a head and shoulder with parts of an arm still attached.” These were the remains of baby girls killed at birth. Pearl buried them (hence the book title Burying the Bones being literal as well as a reference to overcoming emotional scars).

“Where other little girls constructed mud pies, Pearl made miniature grave mounds, patting down the sides and decorating them with flowers or pebbles. She carried a string bag for collecting human remains, and a sharpened stick … to drive the dogs away.”

Pearl was an avid reader who first daydreamed of being a novelist at the age of ten – though it was not something she pursued seriously until much later. After attending college in the United States, Pearl returned to China to serve as a missionary, and a few years later married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist working in China. It was an unhappy union with echoes of her parents’ own marriage. Lossing was obsessed by his work. His research, which took them to Anhui Province, would at least provide the setting for her most famous work, The Good Earth.

Lossing and Buck’s first child, Carol, born in 1920, was mentally handicapped. In 1929 they reluctantly admitted her to an institution in the United States. It was during this low point for Buck that she began work on The Good Earth, a simple story of a poor Chinese farmer, Wang Lung, and his stoic wife, Olan. Published in 1931, the novel was a revelation. Its prose was striking – alien yet readable, plain but exotic. The unlikely subject matter, of Chinese peasants struggling to survive, struck a chord with depression-era Americans. This was something completely new. Film and literary depictions of Chinese at the time were usually of depraved villains, aka Fu Manchu, or comic relief in the form of buck-toothed Chinamen. Away from the page and screen, Chinese were generally held in poor regard; Chinese immigration to the United States had been all but stopped by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first such U.S. law to target a specific ethnic group.

Pearl’s writing not only sold well, but was also hugely influential, in a way that is, alas, difficult for the modern novelist to imagine. As Spurling explains, The Good Earth and its two sequels helped change America’s view of the Chinese to a more positive, sympathetic one, laying some of the groundwork for American support of China against Japanese aggression.

The Good Earth was America’s bestselling novel of 1931 and 1932, winning her a Pulitzer Prize (1932) and contributing to her receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 (the first American woman to do so). The book’s success changed Pearl’s life. It brought fame, wealth, the freedom to pursue writing fulltime, a new home (she moved to the United States), and a new husband. In 1935 Pearl asked Lossing Buck for a divorce and, with what some considered indecent haste, married her publisher Richard Walsh. They were a formidable writing team; she churned out the pages and her husband helped turn them into books, at the rate of a novel or two a year. She also wrote numerous non-fiction works, magazine articles, and short stories.

Pearl’s writing sometimes had a campaigning aspect to it, part of her activist work pursuing greater rights for minorities, women, the disabled, and children. One of Pearl Buck’s earliest fights was for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Success came in late 1943 (though the quota restrictions made it only a partial victory). Ironically, the first passport issued to a Chinese woman after the repeal was to Lomay Chang Buck, the second wife of Pearl’s first husband, John Lossing Buck.

In 1949 Pearl founded Welcome House, the first international adoption agency for biracial children, to address the problem of unwanted children from U.S. servicemen in Japan and Korea. Over her lifetime, Pearl personally adopted seven children.

Spurling does a good job of explaining why Pearl is not better remembered. The quality of her later works was patchy; they were overly sentimental and increasingly irrelevant. Above all, she was an outsider who never quite belonged. She was not fully American, not Chinese; her work was ignored by both the literary elite and Sinologists. Her criticism of missionaries in China burnt bridges with her former life. She was too liberal for the China Lobby (and the FBI, which put her under scrutiny for possible communist sympathies), and yet she was an “imperialist” to the Chinese Communists, who hated her individualistic portrayal of the masses.

In keeping with the focus of the biography, as per the subtitle, “Pearl Buck in China,” the second half of Pearl’s life is covered only briefly. However, it’s not from lack of material. The fascinating snapshots we get leave the reader wanting more.

Burying the Bones by Hilary SpurlingBurying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China
Hilary Spurling
ISBN: 978-1861978523
Publisher: Profile Books (2011)