You can almost feel the sting of smoke in your eyes as Mother feeds bits of grass and twigs to start a fire under a cauldron to cook the family meal. Having made it through the rough winter months, the family has to carefully ration the amount of grass they use to start the fire that warms the farmhouse and cooks the food. It’s almost mind-boggling for modern readers to comprehend the arduous life of subsistence farmers until they get a glimpse of it reading Pearl S. Buck’s classic “The Mother.”
The story is set in set in China early in the 1930s, on the cusp of the start of Communism. Readers are introduced to a typical rural Chinese family of six (husband and wife, mother-in-law, and three children). We also get to see a sliver of community life. Buck weaves a tale of betrayal and survival, seen through the eyes of the Mother.
One item to note: Instead of using unfamiliar Chinese names, Buck’s characters are named by their relationship to each other (Mother, old women, cousin’s wife, etc.).
Despite the backbreaking work of farming, Mother loves the land and family life. Her contentment and kindness shows in every aspect of living, from how she values the land and her animals, to how she treats her mother-in-law and her neighbors.
Simple though her life is, Mother comes alive making things grow, be they children, animals, or crops. While she is utterly content with her life, her husband is discontent working his land. In a disagreement with Mother about gambling, he lashes out, “And what else is there to do in such a little empty place as this—work and sleep—work and sleep— ”
His short diatribe sets the scene for his desertion, with all the family’s money.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the shame that such a desertion would cause a wife in that time and place. To escape the shame, Mother invents a story about husband’s departure and increasingly has to embellish the story to maintain the lie. But with the help of her eldest son, still a young boy, Mother does the work of two farmers and still maintains her home.
The story also shows that some of the same twisted worldviews that plague today’s China were evident then. Abortion and euthanasia was used to eliminate girls, just as they are today. Some of the rural areas were devoid of girls.
Yet it’s obvious throughout Buck’s well-written story that she loves the Chinese people and land. While the characters aren’t mentally deep, Buck created them with dignity. Authenticity is added by the fact that the setting and storyline are taken from her life’s experience. Buck was a daughter of Christian missionaries who served in Chinkiang, China. She lived there from the age of five months until she left for college in the United States.
Pearl S. Buck’s “The Mother” is deservedly a classic, one that will broaden the imagination of YA readers and allow them to catch a glimpse of rural China many years ago, through the lens of a great storyteller.
Image copyright Moyer Bell. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.
Kim Moreland is the managing editor for the Colson Center, manages the Colson Center Library, is a research associate for BreakPoint, and writes feature articles and blog posts for BreakPoint.