Min (The Last Empress, 2007, etc.) offers an adoring fictional biography of Pearl S. Buck.
Narrator Willow Yee grows up in Chin-Kiang at the turn of the century. She lives with her impoverished grandmother and father, a coolie and seasonal farmhand despite his education and literary aspirations. Portrayed with intriguing moral ambiguity, Mr. Yee is a conniver, his motives both self-serving and earnest as he brings converts to zealous missionary Absalom Sydenstricker, Pearl’s father. As Pearl jokes, “My father is a nut and your father is a crook.” Soon Willow and Pearl become inseparable. The early scenes of their childhood, before history gets in the way, are filled with natural lyricism and engaging drama. But once the Boxer Rebellion rears its head and Pearl moves on to missionary school in Shanghai, the novel loses steam. Min gives Willow the skeleton of a story: She is forced into marriage with an opium addict, escapes and becomes a newspaper editor in Nanking, marries a Communist Party member, is denounced and imprisoned, meets Nixon during his visit to Pearl’s childhood home in Chin-Kiang. Willow’s character isn’t fleshed out; her only purpose seems to be to provide a secondhand, sketchy account of Pearl’s life, some of it through dry letters. Pearl attends college in America but longs to return to China. She marries Lossing Buck, who wants to enact Chinese agrarian reform, but the marriage sours by the time their mentally retarded daughter is born. Pearl’s love affair with the poet Hsu Chih-mo is depicted as the life-changing event in Pearl’s creative life, although historians have only circumstantial proof the two were lovers. After Pearl returns to America in middle age, the novel slogs on bloodlessly.
A straightforward biography would have served better than this flat, hagiographic narrative.