cover image Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography

Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography

Peter Conn. Cambridge University Press, $70 (500pp) ISBN 978-0-521-56080-1

In this brilliantly conceived biography, Conn, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to reconstruct Buck's life, her extraordinary commitment to social justice and her literary achievement. To her many (primarily male) critics, Buck was an overrated storyteller whose best-selling portrayals of Chinese peasants struggling in a land on the brink of revolution in no way merited the Pulitzer or Nobel prizes. Time and the reading public seem to have agreed, as only The Good Earth survives--principally as a late-night movie classic. Born in West Virginia in 1892 to Protestant missionary parents, Pearl Sydenstricker spent almost all of her first 40 years in China. Although she was bilingual, she felt an outsider in both countries, and Conn speculates that her experiences in China's white minority led to a lifelong advocacy of interracial understanding. She went to college in the U.S., but returned to China, where she married her first husband, J. Lossing Buck, and gave birth to her only child, who suffered from phenylketonuria (PKU). Then, in 1934, faced with the Japanese invasion, civil tensions and escalating anti-foreigner sentiment, the Bucks returned to the U.S. As her literary works slipped into obscurity, Buck spent the decades until her death in 1973 devoting herself to issues of interracial conflict, immigration and the adoption of disadvantaged children, eventually establishing Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. Perhaps Buck's fortunes have finally turned, for she has been singularly lucky in her biographer. Drawing on Buck's own words and actions, Conn steers a sympathetic yet intelligently balanced course, revealing in fascinating detail the gripping life story of a compelling woman. Photos. (Oct.)