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Book Review: The Promise: A Novel of China and Burma by Pearl S. Buck

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This is the second Pearl S. Buck book I have read, following her more popular The Good Earth, which is the better of the two books. The Good Earth has one of the most memorable endings I’ve ever encountered, where a father is dying and his last wish is for his sons to not ever sell his land. The two sons agree to this wish, though at the last moment exchange a glance (and smile) that means just the opposite.

The Promise is a good novel, though not the best title, for in searching on Amazon, I stumbled upon books by and or about President Obama and also Danielle Steel. And let’s face it—if a title is such that Danielle Steel also thought of it, it’s probably not the best. The tale involves the Japanese attack on the Burma Road, and so some Chinese soldiers are sent to assist the British and American troops, though it ends up being more of a rescue, since the troops cannot fend off the enemy on their own.

The Promise is actually a sequel to one of Buck’s earlier books, The Dragon Seed, which I have not read. Yet I can report that reading the earlier work is not necessary, for the story can well stand on its own. Some of the memorable exchanges occur between the white men and the Chinese—there are examples of cultural stereotyping on both sides, such as the Chinese complaining that the white man is unable to tell the difference between a Burmese and a Chinese, and also how strange their English language sounds. Moreover, there is a discussion that involves the hairiness of such white men, and at one point, it is noted that they are not quite as hairy as dogs. Likewise, when an Englishman refers to the Chinese as a bunch of “Chinks” in good fun, he is then told that: “You do not even know when you insult us.”

The novel is rife with description of jungle and wilderness and the sense that these men are tired and slogging through time. Buck uses an effective listing technique to reinforce this: “As often as the enemy weapons burst upon them, so often men’s tempers, or women’s, burst out in too much fear and weariness and heat and hunger. And worse than anything was the pitiless glare of the angry sun that grew steadily more fierce as the day went on.”

Buck isn’t necessarily a poetic writer in the classical sense, but the best moments in her prose contain what the above quote captures. By repeating the word “and” in the way she does, readers get a sense of the tired feet, the hungry stomach, and the unrelenting heat. She does not over describe either, but rather uses poignant moments as the one above that can mnemonically hook into readers’ minds. In addition, having a sense of history can also aid in memory, for there are moments where Buck speaks of the bombings at Chongqing and the migration of citizens from east to west. Yet the historical context is not such that a reader will end up lost within the Burmese jungle.

The Promise is a fairly fast read as far as literary novels go, and the narrative becomes richer as the book goes on. It is disappointing because whenever I go to a book store, I always only seem to find The Good Earth, and perhaps one other of her novels (if I am lucky) while many of her other books are difficult finds. Buck won the Nobel Prize for literature and apparently has written eighty-five books (according to her bio at the beginning of the novel). Why her other works are difficult to come by, I do not know. Perhaps she, like many other great writers before her, is just in a down phase, and when there is some centennial celebration of something (maybe her death?) her books will be re-released and there will be a rebirth of her career. Not since Willa Cather can I recall such a strong novelist not bound by her sex or ethnicity. There have been some others since, but it is refreshing to see a wide range of subject matter being tackled and also that neither writer felt the need to box herself in.

Despite the dearth of Buck’s novels lining the rows of bookshelves in bookstores, many of her works can be purchased on Amazon—so they are still available, though not popular purchases. Hopefully with time, (and more reviews of her work I plan to write) more attention will be given to this great and deserving literary master.

 

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