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Lay of the Land

Pearl Buck would have been pleased

I have just finished a six-month project of reading all the novels of Pearl Buck. I had read "The Good Earth" while in high school and still had vivid inner images from that book, but I had no idea Buck was such a fascinating writer--one who, unfortunately, has mostly slipped from literary consciousness. What I found was a great storyteller with firm feminist values (though she wrote before the Second Wave came along) and with a special concern for handicapped children and biracial children, the latter due to her awareness of the thousands of children of American servicemen in Asia who were typically abandoned by their fathers and sometimes rejected by their mothers as well.

Buck started writing because of her own daughter, who developed phenylketonuria which caused her to stop developing mentally at about age 7. She found a school for the girl, Carol, but it was expensive, so Buck set herself to write popular novels to pay the costs. As her second book was "The Good Earth" which won both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes, she clearly made a great choice of professions.

That book is only one of over 30 she wrote, however, and not all were set in Asia (although many were). She had grown up in China, the child of Christian missionaries, and retained a deep love for that land throughout her life. But once she moved to America, she incorporated American scenes and stories in her work as well. In some cases, these stories revolved around typical American stories, like "Other Gods," about a woman's coming to terms with her husband's celebrity, or her penultimate "The Goddess Abides," about a young widow who learns about the varieties of love. But in other cases, they considered the situation of young Asian women who married or fell in love with American men, and the racism they faced for this choice.

Buck was very aware of anti-Asian racism in America, so much so that she convinced her neighbors James Mitchner and Oscar Hammerstein to make interracial romance a strong theme in their musical "South Pacific." One direct result was the sharp and controversial song, "You Have To be Carefully Taught," which tells us that "You've got to be taught
To hate and fear/You've got to be taught From year to year/It's got to be drummed/In your dear little ear/You've got to be carefully taught."

The song goes on: "You've got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a different shade/You've got to be carefully taught./You've got to be taught before it's too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate/ You've got to be carefully taught!"

I can't help but think that Buck would be proud of an American that has so many biracial celebrities today--and a biracial president as well. But are we still "carefully teaching" bias through our words and deeds? We have come a long way; we still have far to go.
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