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3.9 out of 5 stars37
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on 5 May 2010
I read Pearl Buck's 'The Good Earth' twice over 40yrs ago, so fascinated was I by her knowledge of her adopted country and her own indomitable character. Hilary Spurling's 'Burying the Bones' is an amazing account of Buck's life in China, her uneasy relationship with her father Absolam and Lossing her husband. Most of all, it gives an insightful look into the character of Pearl Buck as well as the bloody history of China at that time.

Spurling has brought both author and country to life in this fascinating book. Sadly, China & its ruthless tyranny of its own people and distrust of 'farangs' seems little improved in the years in between. I urge anyone interested in China and its long & bloody history to read this remarkable book.
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on 17 May 2011
I have enjoyed Pearl Buck's books for many years, so welcomed the opportunity to find out more about the woman behind the stories. I found the first chapter of this biography to be quite clumsy, as if Hilary Spurling was uneasy with Pearl's early years. However she seemed to become more confident in subsequent chapters. The book is unbalanced in that the first 5 chapters deal with Pearl's life until her mid 30s, the final two chapters and afterword then deal with the next 35+ years. A fascinating story, with I suspect many more facets to Pearl to be unearthed (or not). Some flesh has been put on the bones and the historical background was fascinating. Worth the read.
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on 30 July 2010
Pearl Buck was almost unique for a westerner who could write about early 20th century China with sympathy and understanding. Spurling's book captures this wonderfully and also the appalling character of the American missionary community. Pearl's husband is a representative of one strand of westerner who did something useful without too much sanctimonious snideness. Unhappily he neglected Pearl but probably released her for a much more important mission; to let the outside world know what had happened to one of the world's oldest and most illustrious civilisations and how it was humbled by outsiders, bad governance, misfortune and sheer ungovernable numbers. The book is a marvel; easy to read, well balanced and very important.
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I have been fascinated by the books by Pearl Buck that I have read.....especially The Good Earth which paints such a vivid picture of peasant life in China. However I knew virtually nothing about the author so was intrigued to read Hilary Spurling's biography.

Pearl Buck had an amazing life which Hilary Spurling brings alive to the reader. Buck's parents went out to China in 1880s as missionaries. They were met with indifference from the local people and at times antagonism. But they also had to face dirt and disease. Spurling recounts the heart-rending events of losing three of their children in quick succession to cholera and fever. Pearl's father was a driven man who cast aside everything except his work of proselytising; her mother was lively and sociable. Spurling acknowledges the contradictions in their lives. They were happy to ride roughshod over Chinese culture to encourage the conversion of souls but gave Pearl a Chinese tutor (as well as an amah) who taught her Confucianism as well as Calligraphy. Her ability to understand and communicate with so many different strata of Chinese society is what made her so different from writers at that time. She was also brave enough to tackle some taboo subjects: the subjugation of women, infanticide and marital rape.

From an early age Pearl Buck seems to have felt compelled to write but was only really keen to publish when she needed the funds. Spurling points out the irony that in her later life Buck was referred to in China as an interfering imperialist while back in America her espoused liberal causes made her a target for McCarthy.

This is a beautifully written book that sweeps the reader into the world of a fascinating woman writer.
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VINE VOICEon 17 March 2011
Hilary Spurling sold out her talk at the Bookworm in Beijing last night; I was there. She came across as self-possessed and erudite, with a flawless recall of Buck's life, and a likeable opening anecdote about the picture book she (Spurling) had had as a child (with its vivid colours and happy children playing; not one of Buck's) that would fasten itself into her memory and spark off a life-long interest in China.

Fitting then, that this respected biographer, best known for her Whitbread Prize winning take on Henri Matisse, should choose to unearth one of the 20th century's buried writers, Pearl S. Buck. Timely too, that her subject is the same woman who predicted in 1925 that China would become "the inevitable future leader of Asia" and "exert a tremendous influence upon the future of the world". None though, who knew her, might have doubted otherwise, for Buck it seems was piercingly accurate in her observations, and her ability to arrive at unpopular, or (as in the case of her thoughts on the Southern Presbyterian Church) downright damning conclusions.

Born in the US in 1892 whilst her missionary parents were on a brief sojourn, Buck was taken to China when she was 3 months old. She would grow up bilingual, through one of the most turbulent periods of Chinese history, finally leaving China, forever, in 1934. The bleakness of life in China at that time is rendered shockingly vivid: female infanticide; yearly epidemics of cholera, typhoid, malaria; cycles of famine, flood and drought all played out whilst the Nationalists, Communists and provincial warlords vied bloodily for power. Her father's single-minded vision to convert the (unwilling and uncomprehending) Chinese masses to Christianity would find them outcasts, spat upon, pelted with stones, and worse, as China eventually sought to purge itself of foreigners. One of the biography's most unsettling episodes sees the family, Pearl with her own child by this time, sheltered in the makeshift house of faithful Chinese friends, in what would become known as the "Nanking Incident", whilst their home was looted and several of their foreign friends were murdered.

Spurling's biography traces Pearl from childhood until the publication of The Good Earth - the novel that would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and contributed to her Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. It was a novel that would portray, for the first time in any language (for no Chinese writers had ever done it), the life of China's ordinary people, peasants and farmers, with such frank, warm humanity that it would remain on the bestseller lists for 2 solid years, and never since has it been out of print. In it Buck drew the picture of a beleaguered Chinese people struggling to survive that struck a massive chord particularly in 1930s Depression-era America, and went on, Spurling asserts with conviction, to change the way the whole world perceived China.

A Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner; a tireless campaigner against racism, sexism, and particularly on behalf of children's rights; a prolific speaker, writer, essayist, and editor; a mother to seven children. What is it about Pearl Buck that sees her almost forgotten, unclaimed even by feminism? It seems Buck has never "belonged", at least, not in establishment terms: simultaneously denounced in her own beloved China as an enemy of the people for daring to depict the truth, and in the US for being a communist sympathiser. The church hated her for exposing its proselytizing impotence whilst those it sought to convert lived in poverty and squalor. Even the literary establishment turned up its nose at a writer who, after writing "The Good Earth", would sink (as they saw it) into the mire of factory-line pulp-fiction novelist.

Nothing though, in Pearl Buck's life, seems accidental and least of all her writing. As it had been in China, so would it be in the US and beyond, that Buck was to touch, and be touched by, the common people. Her "mission", Spurling tells us, was to "dispel Western ignorance and prejudice" and she did this "not in spite but because of [her novels'] bland, trite, ingratiating mass-market techniques." The literary establishment may have been mortified, but the public bought her work in their millions. Buck wrote of her readers (for she would receive, and reply to, thousands of their letters over her lifetime): "The finest and most beautiful do not come from these people, but still they are the root and stock of life ... a writer must not lose touch with them.... I feel them. Their minds reach mine, and I try to make mine reach theirs."

Spurling's work is impeccably researched; a biography that conforms to her own theory of the genre's direction towards a "shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form that concentrates on inner meaning rather than its outer chronological and documentary casing." She brings Pearl S. Buck to life, in a highly readable and fascinating way, for a world that might at last be ready to acknowledge her.
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on 8 June 2010
This is an excellent book, placing Pearl Buck squarely at the centre of the mid 20th Century growth in understanding of China. Pearl Buck experienced the poverty, endeavour and humanity of rural China and brought it to the attention of a suspicious and ill-informed America. A complex person herself, Buck used her skills and, latterly, her wealth to help those who had befriended, moulded, as well as physically threatened her during her early years.

Spurling has researched her subject exhaustively and draws her picture of Buck not only from the published and unpublished records of the time, but also from Buck's books, which are semi-autobiographical. This is a complex task, not least because Buck's own attitudes changed over the years.

The author also positions her subject and her family firmly in context and illustrates the evangelistic rigour of Buck's father, her first husband and much of the rest of the missionary community in China.

Pearl Buck was banned by the Communists once they assumed power. It is an interesting development that the current regime has begun to rehabilitate her. So Spurling's book tells us something about China today, as well as China a hundred years ago.
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on 12 June 2011
I remember as a child in the 1950s visiting the public library very regularly and seeing many books by someone called Pearl S. Buck, notably one entitled The Good Earth. Later I discovered that this author had (why?) won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I never heard of anyone who had actually read The Good Earth, or anything else she had written. So why is this biography so good? Well, it places Pearl in her context so well - daughter of a missionary, grew up in China around 1900, absorbed what she had experienced, and wrote about it in what Spurling effectively demonstrates was a new way. Because for the first time a writer of Western origin had got into the life of ordinary Chinese people, the peasants who were patronised by the missionaries and ignored by the Chinese intellectuals. Pearl's life was nothing if not tumultuous - rigid Presbyterian father, workaholic husband, disabled child, tricky family relationships, Chinese warlords..... and it is all done in under 300 pages! Spurling is right, I think, to concentrate on Pearl's Chinese years, and on how her books made her an unexpected celebrity. This book is human, well-balanced, and superbly written. I might never read one of Pearl's books myself, but Spurling makes up for it.
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on 2 June 2010
This book is a wonderful read. A lot of Chinese recent history told very well, & the spirit of the story - the author herself - lifts my spirits. Hers is an admirable life. She is inspiring, & the details of her story are interesting & positive.
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on 26 September 2011
I'm reading this book at the moment and can't wait to go to bed each night to enjoy more pages. I have a great personal interest in China and have built up quite a library of fiction and non fiction about its fascinating history. There have been many references to Pearl S. Buck, so I thought I'd read The Good Earth. Now I feel I should have read Hilary Spurlings detailed, fascinating and inspiring account of Pearl Buck's life first. This book has everything - history, culture, family relationships, self sacrifice, obsession with religion, and deep deep sadness. I haven't yet finished, so perhaps there will also be happiness and fulfilment towards the end- I hope so. This is one of the best books I have ever read.
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on 10 July 2012
I thought this a wonderful read. I expected something good from Hilary Spurling and was delighted. I feel I have a good idea of what Pearl Buck was like, and, even more important, what her value as an author was and is; not least I feel I have learnt a lot about what the Chinese have endured, and for an understanding (if it is possible at all) of such a vast number of people and the kind of authoritarian political system they were subjected to, this must be important. It is also important not to shy away from the appalling treatment of women in such societies.

I think Spurling was quite right to spend more time on Buck's younger life as this is what formed her and is so strange to most of us. The later years of her life didn't need to be spelled out in such detail, though I 'd love to know what happened to her children. It was sad to read of yet another old, rich woman abused by those who should have cared for her; even though I think much trouble was caused by her own vanity and insecurity - though not surprising, given what she had earlier endured.

Buck was an amazing writer and observer and, which I didn't know, campaigner. She deserved every prize she got, even though I don't now feel inspired to read her novels. They sound too grim and I'm grateful for Spurling's precis. It is exhilarating to learn of powerful independent people like Buck.

Why I haven't given this Kindle all 5 stars is because I cannot find my way round notes. I should love to be able to do the equivalent of flip through pages to find something again. It wasn't until the end I saw why so many phrases were underlined, but I couldn't move from underlined note to the further information at the back of the book. Perhaps Kindle would kindly update its instructions to users like me who haven't worked this out? With a book it is so easy, as I can remember to look at, say the bottom of a left page near the beginning - but without that kinetic or visual memory, we need a different method. This of course is a general problem and big disappointment with all Kindle books.
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