I picked up this book because it is on Miss Busy’s list of all-time favorites. And the audiobook was at the Library.
Really good stuff.
The story opens with Wang Lung’s wedding day. The bride is a slave from the house of the local rich guy. She is a total gem named Olan. They work together quietly and slowly begin to grow a small farm and family while caring for his father.
A few years in, a drought strikes and everyone in the countryside goes hungry. The family leaves the farm and heads to the city to find what work and food they can. They depart after the birth of a fourth child, dead on arrival. We are led to believe that Olan killed her rather than have one more child to feed. As it is, the hunger has stunted the development of the third child and she is left permanently (helplessly) disabled.
This stretch, relatively early in novel, reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath and I was bracing myself for even worse badness. It isn’t pretty, but they muddled through and made off with some cash when the city’s local mansion is looted. They head home to better times.
Work hard. Spend little. Grow the farm – even hiring labor. The sons go to school. There is also the continuing menace of his uncle and family – idle and manipulative to the point of evil.
Many years go by before the next natural disaster..bad flooding. But this time, Wang Lung has plenty of money and the family is in no mortal danger. But Wang Lung starts to frequent the tea houses, picks up a mistress and spends money like water. He is a total ass to his long-suffering wife and I found it hard to forgive him. The point, though, was that Wang Lung was becoming one of the “lords” that he despised and envied in his youth. He had the good grace to feel ashamed. Occasionally.
Times passes and the children grow. Olan, who has harbored an illness in silence for some time, dies. The sons are educated, but don’t appreciate the land. The youngest, the only one who ever worked it, runs off to join the army. I was reminded of the book, The Millionaire Next Door, which theorized that most fortunes only last three generations because each one gets further from the original business that created the fortune.
I spent the last chapters of the book wondering if Wang Lung would live to see the Revolution. And whether his fortune would last long enough for it to kill them all.
Overall, the theme of work = good and idleness = bad was pretty good. Also, the questions of what people will accept and what they will fight for. The shadow of Revolution hanging over the house kept the tension pretty interesting.
I am very glad I read this.