During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and 70's Pearl S. Buck went from being a great story telling of Chinese history and cultural to a Western enemies whose writings and ideas were to be thought of poison from a foreign enemy. Before the novel starts Min dedicates the novel to Buck and expresses lament because of the fervor with which she had denounced Buck and her works during the revolution. The novel is a way in which Min feels she make up for those years of denunciation to an author who is now widely hailed as a great writer and heroine of the Chinese people.
Best-selling author Anchee Min's latest novel delves into the life of Pearl Buck and her childhood friend and narrator Willow. As the book begins Buck is the daughter of a zealous Christian missionary who is struggling to move the people in the small southern Chinese city of Chin-kiang away from their numerous gods and towards the story of and belief in Jesus Christ. Buck's father faces a number of challenges as much of Jesus' teachings and life are lost in translation. The people feel uncomfortable about worship such a skinny god who looks as though he cannot feed himself as well as the image of a bearded Jesus who looks destitute and not respectable. It is Willow's crafty and cunning father who leaves his life as a common thief to aid Pearl's father in making his Jesus more popular by giving him less Western eyes and a rounder belly in order for him to compete with the plump Buddha the people cling to.
The young Pearl we meet through the eyes of her Chinese playmate Willow will eventually grow up to be the iconic Pearl S. Buck author of The Good Earth, Imperial Women, and Dragon Seed along with a great many more historical fiction novels based in the China of her youth. The character of Pearl is interesting, a girl who struggles to fit into a Chinese society that she think of as her own but clearly sticks out in. She is conflicted as she watches her father try and convert the locals whom she comes to think of as her own.
I started reading the novel last night and am already a third of the way through it. Something about Min's writing instantly draws me in. I've read every one of her books and although some of them are more compelling than others I have enjoyed them all and was relishing the idea of another Min novel. The read is quick but compelling and one I suggest. Yes, there are a number of religious elements in the novel, Christianity chiefly among them but the greater story of Pearl and Willow's friendship and themes of belonging and identity should out weight any misgivings one might have about religious elements.
I have long been a fan of Chinese-born author Anchee Min, first reading her memoir Red Azaleain which the author details her childhood in Communist China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The story is one of severe deprivation, betrayal and zeal for the words of the powerful Chairman Mao. Min struggles to fit in and prove her loyalty to the Red Revolution grabbing hold all around her. Red Azalea is the story of an exceptional woman living in exceptionally difficult times. From her childhood in the Red Guard to the tireless and inhumane conditions of the work farm she was forced to toil in, the reader cannot help but feel a connection to Min who has a definite talent for capturing the spirit of those who were made to suffer in the midst of a revolution that was supposed to set them free. The title of her book comes from the propaganda film she was selected to star in and while she may have been free of the work farm this new role came with a new kind of heart ache and embarrassment as political machinations continued to wreak havoc.
Min's other works have included Empress Orchidand The Last Empress, two historical fiction novels about the fabled Chinese Empress Tzu Hsi, also known as Empress Orchid whose life, like Min's is pretty extraordinary. Orchid goes from impoverished candidate in a field of hundreds who are auditioning to be selected for a spot as one of many of the Emperor's concubine to the fourth wife of the Emperor and mother of the "last emperor". Min's detail and description are as strong when writing about the Cultural Revolution as it is writing about the Opium Wars that plague China's royal power in its final waning days.Min tackles the life of Chairman Mao's wife in Becoming Madame Mao, a fictional book about Mao's wife's life that also covers her role as a creator of large scale propaganda infused musicals.
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