She was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker on June 26, 1892, in her mother’s family home in America, where her parents had returned to recover from a catastrophe that very nearly wrecked their marriage. A year after Carie’s night with the farmers her youngest child, Arthur, who had never been strong, fell ill with a raging fever and died the day before his father could get back from the north. The family set out with the body in a sealed coffin on the long journey by canal and riverboat to bury him beside his sister Maude in Shanghai. There Carie and her surviving daughter immediately succumbed to a cholera epidemic. Edith died a fortnight after her brother, on September 5, 1890. Absalom, who had looked after the child while the doctor struggled to save Carie, retreated behind what had long since become an impenetrable barrier against emotions that threatened to swamp him. “We had a full cup of sorrow” was the most he would say then or later. The only flicker of personal feeling that surfaced in spite of himself in the many articles he published over a quarter of a century in the Chinese Recorder was an aside, in a piece written that autumn, on “the heart-rending bereavements that come to so many houses in spite of all medicine can do.” Carie lay in stony silence, barely alive herself, unable to absorb or accept what had happened. “The deaths of these two children, coming so close together, almost deranged our mother,” her daughter Grace wrote half a century later.
Husband and wife emerged from their ordeal each holding the other in some sense to blame. Every year Carie dreaded the tropical summer months, when disease flared in the towns, mosquitoes swarmed on ponds and streams, flies gathered in clouds over the great jars of human excrement used for fertilizer, and Absalom overruled her pleas to take the children to the comparative cool of the coast or the hills. “I shouldn’t have listened to him,” she said of an earlier defeat, “but I always did.” Now that her worst fears had materialized, all she wanted was to go home. Warned by the doctor that Carie was on the verge of losing her mind, her husband reluctantly agreed to take her. “He went about Europe like a chained and quarrelsome lion,” Pearl wrote of her father on their long slow journey, punctuated by sightseeing stops on the westward route to America. Absalom remained as always incredulous at his wife’s inability to put the crying need of a whole nation of infidels before her own private setbacks. “I never saw so hard a heart, so unreasoning a mind as hers in those days,” he said, looking back gloomily twenty years later. “Nothing I could say would move her.”
It was an ignominious homecoming for both of them. Lively, pretty, and pleasure-loving, Carie had married the saintly younger brother of the minister in her hometown of Hillsboro, West Virginia, because he was preparing to go as a missionary to China, and she wanted to give herself to God. She said she had sworn a vow at her mother’s deathbed, and she stuck to it in spite of stiff opposition from her father. Now she was returning damaged in body and mind, with only the oldest of her four children to show for a decade away. Pearl’s birth eighteen months after they landed brought the consolation signaled by her middle name, Comfort, but it also marked yet another defeat for her mother, who was finally forced to accept that her marriage was a life sentence, “irrevocable as death,” and that she must go back to serve it in a country she already feared and was beginning to hate. This new child tied her to both. “Had it taken the death of the other three to break her to God’s will … ?” Pearl wrote somberly in The Exile. “She was broken, then, and she would do that will.”
Absalom had extended his twelve months’ furlough when his wife became pregnant, and now he could not wait to get back. In the ten years he had spent in China he had made, by his own reckoning, ten converts. Millions more awaited his call. “We are by no means overtaking these millions with the Gospel,” he wrote grimly after another twenty years. “They are increasing on us.” He was haunted by the specter of populations growing uncontrollably so that, as fast as young men migrated to the towns, “their place was taken by grinning boys.” He listed with relish the components of a nightmarish vision: “a great and increasing host against us… Heathenism with all its vices still living and active… The darkness, widespread and deep, sin in all its hideous forms, intense worldliness as well as hydra-headed idolatry.”
But the immediate problem confronting Absalom on his return to Tsingkiangpu in January 1893 was not so much heathen obstinacy as the intransigence of his fellow missionaries. The younger man who had arrived as an assistant twelve months before the Sydenstrickers left was not only living in their house but had stored their possessions in an outbuilding, where Absalom found his books mildewed and his bookcases eaten by termites. In the two years of his absence his system had been overhauled and Rev. James Graham, the colleague now starting to look more like a usurper, had pointed out its shortcomings to the mission meeting, which voted diplomatically to let Sydenstricker go. Interpreting this outcome as a triumphant endorsement of his vocation as a “Gospel herald,” Absalom repossessed the house, settled his family back into it, and promptly set off with two new recruits by mule cart to stake out a fresh claim of his own in virgin territory seventy-five miles to the west. His new base of Hsuchien was a collection of straw-roofed mud houses on the edge of the immense, crowded, and poverty-stricken flood plain of the Yellow River, where he aimed to establish a network of small outstations within reach of his own post at the center, while incidentally putting as much space as possible between himself and the mission authorities, always far too ready to query his decisions in favor of crackpot schemes of their own.
His departure set a pattern for Pearl’s childhood. Her father remained physically and emotionally distant, shut up in his study if not actually away prospecting for souls, never seeming particularly at home even when he was living in the same house. “His children were merely accidents which had befallen him,” she wrote, describing the sense of relief his absence always brought to the family he left behind. “My father set off on a long trip northward, heady with excitement and hope,” wrote her sister of one of these periodic partings that left everyone feeling as if a weight had lifted. Throughout the time Pearl spent in Tsingkiangpu, Carie was the center of a world confined to the house and its walled compound, where she had planted a garden. Respectable Chinese women were never seen on the streets; mission wives could expect to be cursed and spat at if they tried to go out alone. Two other American couples trying to establish a mission station a few years later in Hsuchowfu, eighty miles northwest of Hsuchien, reported that for six months the two wives were prisoners in their own houses, neither of them daring to walk even the few hundred yards to call on the other. Pearl’s only view of anything beyond her high garden wall was the procession of feet she was short enough to see passing in the gap between the heavy wooden gate and the ground.
Her impression of this period afterward was of happiness and security. Sun shone on the garden and poured into the house. Carie could transform any lodgings, however unpromising, by applying the same cheap speedy formula (which would later be Pearl’s): windows open to let in light and air, whitewashed walls, grass mats on the floor, the polished oval table she never traveled without, plain rattan chairs, and flowers everywhere. She planted a white rose grown from a cutting taken on the porch of her American home and hung up frilly curtains to shut out sights she didn’t want her children to see. Edgar, who had been reading Dickens, Thackeray, and Scott since the age of seven, was currently working on a novel of his own and producing a weekly newspaper, which he printed on a toy press for subscribers among the tiny scattered mission community. In the mornings he had lessons with his mother, who had been a schoolteacher before her marriage and provided a basic education that included learning how to draw, sing, and play the violin. For Carie this was a time of renewal and hope. By the end of the year she was pregnant again.
Pearl learned to talk from Wang Amah, who fed, bathed, and dressed her, crooned tunes to her, and taught her riddles and rhymes. In the summer of the child’s second birthday her mother was eclipsed altogether by the nurse. For three months Carie lay seriously ill, racked by dysentery, unable to eat or keep food down if she did, struggling to nourish the baby she was carrying, and too weak to see even her children for more than a few minutes at a time. Pearl remembered twice-daily visits to “the other one’s, the white one’s room,” when her mother could only stare at her from the bed. Wang Amah made the child put on a fresh white muslin frock, a petticoat and leather shoes for these inspections; she combed her long hair free of tangles and pinned a fat yellow curl in a sausage shape on top of her head. But most of the time Pearl wore the Chinese jacket, trousers, and cloth shoes in which she felt comfortable (unlike her father, who forced himself to dress like the Chinese so as not to stand out more than he must, but never got used to the loose cotton robes that flapped around his long limbs, impeding his stride and making it impossible to move at more than a slow amble).
Pearl escaped thankfully from the tight clothes and strict rules of her parents into the indulgent world of the kitchen, where the whole household—nurse, cook, houseboy, and anyone else who dropped by—played with her and told her stories. They brought her kites, whistles, and sugar candies from the market. Wang Amah kept hens’ eggs inside her jacket, where Pearl could reach in and find them when they hatched into chicks. She ate the simple, highly flavored food of the poor, dishes she loved ever afterward: soup, brown rice, bits of salt fish or meat, pickled mustard greens, bowls of white cabbage and bean curd, crisp chewy crusts from the bottom of the rice pot. For Pearl China always remained the place where she felt at home. When she looked back from the far end of her rootless and fractured existence, the landscape of her childhood shone in her memory as America did for her mother. She loved even the hot rainy season that Carie dreaded, and the rice harvest in September when low autumn light made everything hazy and soft. Her descriptions have a hypnotic, almost incantatory rhythm: “The masses of feathery, waving bamboo, the low green hills, the winding, golden waters of the canal, the small brown villages of thatched houses… the drowsy rhythm of the flails beating out the grain upon the threshing floors… deep blue skies above the shorn gold fields and the flocks of white geese picking up the scattered grains of rice… The very air is sweet and somnolent with that broken, rhythmic beating of the flails.”
In the fiercest heat of the summer of 1894 Pearl’s father came home to announce that they were moving again. “My memory of his middle years when I was a child and a young girl was the ceaseless journeying to and fro,” she wrote when he died. Tension always rose at this time of year for Carie, who had already lost three children at the end of long hot summers. Eight months pregnant, still shaky from prolonged illness, she was reluctant to pack herself and her family into carts to head for an unknown town so violently opposed to foreigners that it had taken Absalom nearly two years to find anyone prepared to rent him a place fit to live in. War had recently broken out with Japan, exacerbating the suspicions of the Chinese, who now lumped all foreigners together with the Japanese enemy, regardless of race or color. Absalom was tall and rawboned with reddish hair, a beard, and piercing blue eyes. In the traditional plays and stories, which were the main source of information available to country people, red hair and colored eyes were the distinguishing marks of a villain. Pearl’s father produced much the same shock and dismay in the villagers of North kiangsu as Wang the farmer feels in The Good Earth when he sees his first missionary: “a man very tall, lean as a tree that has been blown by bitter winds. This man had eyes as blue as ice and a hairy face… His hands were also hairy and red-skinned. He had… a great nose projecting beyond his cheeks like a prow beyond the sides of a ship.” In places where no one had seen a white man before, people treated a missionary preaching in the teahouse as a one-man traveling freak show, or else set the dogs on him.
King Gustav awards Pearl Buck the Nobel Prize for Literature, Stockholm, Sweden, December 21, 1938. Image (partial) found on Explore PA History.com
© 2010 Hilary Spurling