Friday, November 23, 2007

Book note: Fighting Angel, by Pearl S. Buck

So, I finished a really big project a few days ago, and to reward myself I sat down with a book I'd never read. The paperback edition I have is an old one, a Giant Cardinal edition that sold originally for 50 cents. It appears to be a second printing, from May 1964. The book itself is copyright 1936.

At any rate, the cover copy and the inside blurbs couldn't praise this book highly enough. On the front, it blares:

The heroic portrait of her father - described in her citation for the Nobel Prize as a "Masterpiece of Biography"
On the back, it says (ellipsis in original):

An American Missionary in China

One of America's greatest and most beloved writers, Pearl S. Buck never saw this country until she was eighteen years old. Born and raised in China, she was the daughter of American missionary parents.

FIGHTING ANGEL is Pearl Buck's deeply felt portrait of her father, a man who in true pioneer spirit was willing to leave his own country for an unknown land halfway around the world. It is the story of an heroic man with a calling, a faith that could move mountains and withstand countless trials and dangers.

"In the limpid flowing beauty of her writing, in the unerringly clarity and directness of every word and image and expression, Pearl Buck... has drawn a portrait with far more than personal vividness, touched problems as deep as all humanity." -- The New York Times

So, a lot of high praise, yes? And I have a weakness for biographies. And I love 'man moving mountains' stories. And so I settled in to read.

And things got strange. The last thing I expected from all that build-up was to find myself in something of a 1930s version of a modern day television talk show wherein a daughter airs her father's perceived shortcomings as a father and a man, much less a book that often seemed clueless about Christianity. (I think it's fair to say an author is clueless about Christianity if she holds herself superior to her father because he claims there's a fundamental difference between Christ and Confucius, and she can't see any difference that matters. Just for starters.)

By the time I got to page 31 the author's take on Christianity and her father were getting pretty clear, but this paragraph laid it on the line:

Nor can I tolerate for a moment any mawkish notion that it was his religion that filled him with that might. Religion had nothing to do with it. Had he been a lesser mind he would have chosen a lesser god, had he been born for today he would have chosen another god, but whatever he chose would have been as much god to him. Whatever he did he would have done with that swordlike singleness of heart. As it was, born of the times and of that fighting blood, he chose the greatest god he knew, and set forth into the universe to make men acknowledge his god to be the one true God, before whom all must bow. It was a magnificent imperialism of the spirit, incredible and not to be understood except by those who have been reared in it and have grown beyond it. Most of all are those yet in it unaware of what they are.
I guess she wanted people to know she'd "grown beyond it," as she liked to think. But the funny thing is that she goes on to write a biography that I think turns that paragraph into so much wishful thinking, not to mention wrong. If her portrait of him is at all accurate, her father wasn't forcing anyone to "bow" to his God. He was sharing the Gospel, letting those come to Christ who felt called to come, baptizing those who seemed to be sincere (some of his fellow missionaries were horrified at his willingness to baptize what they considered questionable converts, but his policy, he said, was to leave it to God to sort the wheat from the tares). And he was setting up schools and handing out food and in general trying to help people, whether they were Christian or not. And he was friendly toward Chinese non-Christian priests, too, at least in her telling of things; he disagreed with them, but gently, and with humor.

It never occurred to me that Pearl Buck might not have been Christian. Is not the fact she was born to and raised by missionaries in China prominently noted in practically every mention of her, even in thumbnail sketches of the briefest sort? Have I not stocked and sold and read "Story Bibles" by her, both Old Testament and New? I have no idea what her stance was later in life, but in 1936 she was holding herself out as too sophisticated to be lumped in with those poor misguided persons like her father. It's pretty sad, actually.

I think it's pretty telling that she describes spending some of her playtime pretending that there is no God, because God gets so much of her father's attention. She also describes going to bed one night rebelliously not saying her prayers - and finding herself alive in the morning decides she doesn't have to be as afraid of either God or her father as she had been.

The lady had issues, people. Not to mention some strange ideas about God.

To be fair, certainly some of the missionaries she describes should be held to account for bad behavior, both inside their circle, and out amongst the Chinese. Some of them acted very badly indeed. But she seems to confuse the wannabe poster children for Christianity with the religion itself - hardly something that holds up intellectually, in my view. And she seemed to relish the chance to point out where and how missionaries didn't act like saints. (Did I mention that the lady seemed to have some unresolved hostility issues?)

And yet, for all that, once I got into the book, despite a cringe here or there (sometimes for her father's sake, and sometimes for the author's) I found it a worthwhile read.

Her father comes across as one of those men who hasn't much idea how to be a father, to be sure. But then he also comes across as a man who is horribly unsure of himself where women are concerned. He hadn't planned to marry, but his mother conned him into making her 'just one promise' before he went to China, and after he'd agreed to honor that 'just one promise,' she told him he had to marry before he could leave, because she'd worry about him without a wife to take care of him. Oh, my. What a thing to ask of a man, especially a man like that. (She didn't want him to go to China, if you're wondering.)

So, then, finally, being a man of his word he manages to round up a wife, and then finds himself married to a woman who gets used to ruling the roost when he's off on trips, who won't paddle the children herself but has him do it when he gets home, who is openly relieved when he heads off for a few days or a few weeks, who imposes suffocating rules on her children when he's home, but teaches them they can relax when he's gone... hmmm... I guess I'm not horribly surprised he wasn't always comfortable in his own home, or that his daughter grew up with a few issues...

Luckily, the book has enough meat in it that Buck's resentments and recollections of petty misunderstandings don't take over the book. I think they mar the book, but I still found it a worthwhile read. I wouldn't hand it to a snarky atheist, though. Not unless you want to enforce their disdain of Christianity. Buck can't seem to get past the personalities of the people of her childhood, and lets their many and serious shortcomings serve as illustrations of her idea of Christianity. Snarky atheists in my experience being prone to that sort of thinking, I wouldn't want to encourage them in that 'logic,' just speaking for myself.

A plus: there's some good history in here, despite the ax grinding.

But it certainly wasn't the book I expected, especially after reading the cover blurbs.

And, oh, speaking of the cover blurbs: According to chapter eight, when Buck describes her decision to join the church while visiting relatives in America (so that she could wear her new frock - honestly, she says she decided on the spur of the moment to 'join' the church because her favorite cousin was joining and was going to wear a pretty frock, and here she had a new white frock she'd never worn because there had been no occasion for it), well, anyway, she sure seems much younger than eighteen in that chapter, yet there she was in America, using her uncle's church for a fashion show. So I don't know where that "Pearl S. Buck never saw this country until she was eighteen years old" business comes from. (Pause while your hostess googles...) Here we go, that trip was right after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and she was born in 1892, so... yeah, she was a lot younger than 18.

A side note: In this biography of her father, her father is never named. Not that I saw. I had to look up his name on the internet: Absalom Sydenstricker. In the book he is only Andrew, except where he's called by a nickname the Chinese hung on him. I guess she thought we should be happy to think of him merely as the father of Pearl S. Buck? What? But then, Buck almost never names herself either, except as "Carie's daughter," or "one of Carie's daughters." Did I mention there are some strange things about this book?

But, on the other hand, one of the really interesting things about this book is that in the end I thought Buck's father comes across as a better man than perhaps she knew: flawed, and hemmed in by his times, and wrapped up in his work, sure - but heroic and noble and tough and unselfish, a man with a lot of integrity and courage.

Buck wrote a biography of her mother called The Exile, also copyright 1936. I haven't seen it yet, but in Fighting Angel she clearly favors her mother over her father, so I'm guessing it would be a more sympathetic portrayal.

Added: Just so you don't think I'm declaring Pearl Buck a nonbeliever based on my own take of her religious views as presented in this book, the following is from page 194 in this edition (Buck is in this instance referring to herself as "Carie's daughter" again):
...Carie's daughter listened and never argued with him, or ever showed her unbelief. Not for her life would she have robbed Andrew of one atom of that faith that had made life so worth living for him, not now when he was old and needed the faith by which to die. And he never thought to ask her what her own faith was, being so full of his own.
(Or, maybe, since she'd insisted upon joining the church when she was young, it might have led him to think that it wasn't his business to quiz her on her faith, especially now that she was a grown woman, and responsible for herself?)


IrvingD said...

Nice summary of Pearl Buck's beliefs. It appears that she never truly embraced the faith of her father, but developed a full-blown atheistic humanism that is currently making a comeback today. As a high school English teacher and orthodox Christian who has used The Good Earth, I too am amused by the constant mention of Buck's missionary past.

Anonymous said...

Kathryn, excellent review; I enjoyed it a lot. You hit the nail on the head with what I was searching for concerning Buck's family experiences and what came to be her beliefs. I linked to and mentioned this-- blog? is that what it is?-- on a thread about Buck I'd started on beliefnet. Here is the link in case you want to take a look or join in:

Kathleen P.

Kathryn Judson said...

irvingd and Kathleen P., Thanks for your comments.

Kathleen, thanks for the link and the heads up.