Jewel of the East

A new biography of Pearl Buck.

By Caryn James
Photograph: Photo: Getty Images

That cobwebby figure from high school, Pearl Buck, gets a sleek makeover as a social activist in Hilary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China (Simon & Schuster), a nuanced biography of the writer’s 40-year residence in that country.

Born to American missionaries, Pearl Sydenstricker grew up during the Boxer Uprising in war-torn Zhenjiang at a time when foreigners’ lives were routinely threatened by militants. Still, she remained in China as an adult after marrying an American agricultural expert named John Lossing Buck.

The union was a mismatch—John was dull and inattentive—and the couple divorced in 1935. But writing, always her escape, offered salvation. The Good Earth made her an international superstar and a pariah to Chinese officials, who were furious at her revelations about the oppression of peasants. After fiercely defending the novel, she left the country, though hardly for political reasons: Buck had fallen for her publisher. She remarried and settled happily in Pennsylvania.

Spurling doesn’t even pretend to admire Buck as a writer. She calls her many best sellers “bland” and is more impressed by her other accomplishments, such as opening Western minds to China and championing the mentally disabled (Buck’s own daughter among them), racial minorities and Asian-American orphans. In this way, Spurling rediscovers a trailblazing heroine whose life speaks to her legacy as deeply as her books do.

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of More.

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