Tag Archives: historical fiction

Historical Fiction: Learning the Genre

Women on Ship (1800s)Historical Fiction is a genre that intrigues me. I was drawn to Regency and Victorian era historical fiction by my love of Jane Austen and her novels. In turn, this interest moved me into the science fiction crossover of Steampunk, a type of alternate history. The creation of a historical world is similar to the creation of a science fiction or fantasy one. Many times authors will use a past civilization to be the fuel for their own fantastical creation.

To get you started in the genre, I have listed a few sites that I have found helpful in learning the foundation of historical fiction. Let your curiosity move you through time and space and experience more of the human condition than what we live in present day. By learning of the past, perhaps we will see more of our future.

Historical Novel Society
This is an organization devoted to the historical novel. They are a collection of chapter houses throughout the United States and the UK that are supported by many online forums. The group sponsors an annual historical novel conference, hosts a contest for historical novels and short stories where the wear does win a monetary award along with recognition and offers reviews and other resources for the historical writer. Membership is $50 annually. If you are an aspiring writer of historical fiction, this may be a good place to establish yourself.

Queen Anne Boleyn
This forum website began as a new home for a closed group of Tudor reenactment from Facebook. Reenactment is not encouraged on Facebook and members found their accounts frozen from access. Another group that used the Game of Thrones theme had a similar problem. Both of these well-established groups merged into the Queen Anne Boleyn website where they could conduct their reenactments as they wished without the censure of Facebook. Soon more groups followed. Now the membership site is a wonderful resource for historical and alternate history writers, writing groups and more.

Meryton Press
Meryton Press is home to “A Happy Assembly”, a forum dedicated to fans of Jane Austen, a small press that publishes fan fiction of Jane Austen novels and a hub of writers that love regency era historical fiction. Join the happy assembly and read plenty of austen fanfiction and gain reviews of austen spin-offs you can find on Amazon.

Writing Historical Novels

A blog with a rotating staff of four, it is a place to read reviews of historical novels and other topics of interest. They accept a large number of guest writers, so the blog remains fresh and new.

A Writer of History

This is the historical novel blog of MK Todd. She gives advice on writing historical fiction as well as interviews with readers.

English History Authors

If you are looking for a source to learn more about English history by historical fiction writers who love all things British, look no further. This blog features the work of a small stable of historical fiction writers and serves not only as a place to read more about the subject, but as a promotional hub for the books written by the members.

History Refreshed

This blog by Susan Higginbotham delves into the craft of writing a historical novelist that focuses on late medieval and Tudor history. She brings up fascinating topics of discussion that all writers should consider as they develop their stories.

Austenprose

This blog is dedicated to all things Jane Austen. There are reviews of her classic novels, discussions about the author herself and a place to learn more about the multitude of Austen spin-off novels that are littering Amazon, Austen films that are engaging the modern movie scene and pop culture itself.

Reading the Past

This blog will lead you to sources about the historical fiction genre and includes book reviews and publishing news.

Stephie Smith

This is an amazing resource of links of historical resources for writers. Enter at your own risk. You will wander through this huge list of links for weeks and still not see the end of the information.

Book Review: Outlander

Book Name: Outlander
Author: Diana Galbadon
First Published: 1991

Diana Galbadon grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona where she earned a BA in Zoology from Northern Arizona University. Later she would gain a Masters of Science in Marine Biology from UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Then she returned to Arizona to earn her PhD in Behavioral Ecology from Northern Arizona University.

She would become a full-time assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies at Arizona State University where she did research, scientific computing and database management and taught classes in anatomy among other subjects. She was the founding editor of Science Software Quarterly and would later write software reviews and technical articles for computer publications as well as popular-science articles and comic books for Disney.

In 1988, Gabaldon began to write a novel “for practice” and without any intention of showing it to anyone. As a research professor, she thought that a historical novel would be the simplest novel for her to write, but she had no particular time period that drew her. It was during this time that Galbadon happened to see an episode of “Dr. Who” entited “War Games”. One of the doctor’s companions was a Scotish Highlander from around 1745 by the name of Jamie MacCrimmon. This character became the spark for her novel’s mid-18th century Scotland setting and one of the lead main characters of the book, James Fraser. However, during the writing, her female lead, Claire Randall, took over the book, making smart-ass comments that were decidedly modern throughout the story. To explain this character’s mindset, Gabaldon added the element of time travel to the story. And as they say, the rest was history.

“You are my courage, as I am your conscience,” he whispered. “You are my heart—and I your compassion. We are neither of us whole, alone. Do ye not know that, Sassenach?” – Diana Galbadon

Outlander begins just after World War II. A British Army nurse and her husband, an Oxford history professor, are together at last after being separated by the war. They travel to Inverness, Scotland in order to have a second honeymoon and for Frank Randall to research his family history. As Frank digs into his research, his wife Claire Randall gathers plants near a circle of standing stones on a hill known as Craigh na Dun. After witnessing a pagan ritual being performed at the stones, Claire returns the next day and is distracted from her plant gathering by a strange humm in the rocks, she touches one of the standing stones and is overcome briefly.

She awakens to the sound of a distant battle and as she wanders about, she is apprehend by a group of Scotsmen that believe her to be a British spy. Claire is confused by the speech and dress of these Scotsmen who later reveal to her that they are members of Clan MacKenzie. They wear clothing that is centuries out of date and their speech is difficult to understand. As the MacKenzie Clan departs the battlefield, one of their own is wounded. Claire uses her nurse’s skill to reset a young warrior’s shoulder. He is called Jamie MacTavish and the Scotsmen put him in charge of taking care of Claire as they continue on their home, Castle Leoch, the seat of Clan MacKenzie.

At the castle, Claire is questioned by the laird, Colum. By now she has figured out that she has traveled backwards in time via the stones of Craigh na Dun. Claire believes that she needs to return to the stones in order to find her way home to the 20th Century and back to her husband. The Scots see Claire as an “Sassenach”, an Outlander who is ignorant of Highlander culture and one of the hated English. Claire pretends to be a widow who has lost all her possessions in order to hide her secret. Colum does not believe her and forbids her from leaving the castle.

Colum wants to learn more about Claire and decides to send her with his brother Dougal’s party as he collects the rents from the tenants on MacKenzie land. Dougal is collecting more than rent, he is also taking donations for the Jacobite cause. At each village, he orders Jamie to remove his shirt so that the farmers can see the whip marks on his back, gained during an interrogation by Captain “Black Jack” Randall. When the villagers see the marks, they donate more money. Claire is appalled by the way that Jamie is being used and the two begin to form a friendship.

Later, Captain Randall demands that Claire be given up to him so that he can question her. The clansmen do not wish to turn her in due to the Captain’s reputation of brutality. The lawyer who travels with them, in order to oversee the processing of the rents, notes that the only way to keep Claire safe from the English is to make her legally a Scotswoman. He proposes that one of the men marry the widow. Dougal considers marrying Claire himself, but then decides to force Jamie to do it since he is more expendable. Claire balks at the idea, but after many arguments and fear of facing the English Captain, she agrees.

Young Jamie also agrees to the marriage. He insists that he and Claire are married properly in kirk. He informs her that his real name is James Fraser, not MacTavish. Jamie is a wanted man with a price on his head. He wants to start this marriage with honesty and to marry her with his real name. Claire is touched by the kindness Jamie shows on their wedding day. She is also surprised to find her wedding night with the young highlander to be more enjoyable than she expected. She is torn between love for her husband Frank, who is on the other side of the standing stones, and her growing fondness for Jamie. However, she is still determined to return home if the opportunity presents itself.

As the collection party travels near Craigh na Dun, Claire escapes from the Scotsmen and attempts to return to the stones. She nearly drowns in the process and is captured by the British. After much daring, Jamie manages to rescue her and the pair, along with Dougal and the party, return to Castle Leoch.

Claire and Jamie settle into married life in the castle. Jamie works in the stables and Claire continues her work as a healer. She befriends Geilis Duncan, the wife of a town official who shares her love of medicine. While Jamie is away, Claire and Geilis are charged with witchcraft. It is during the time that the pair wait to be tried and burned at the stake when Claire realizes that her friend is also a time traveler like herself.

Jamie manages to arrive in time to save Claire from being burned at the stake and the pair of them are forced to flee from Castle Leoch. When they find themselves safe, Claire confesses her secret to Jamie. She is a time-traveler and she is not exactly a widow, her husband is alive and well in the future. Jamie believes her story and takes her to Craigh na Dun himself. He tells her to make her choice. He will wait for her at the bottom of the hill until morning. Claire finds herself near the humming stones and knows that she could return to the 20th century if she wished, but at that moment, she realizes that she loves Jamie and wishes to remain with him.

Jamie and Claire travel to Jamie’s home and live with his sister and her husband. Although Jamie is still an outlaw of the British army, he decides to take on his role as Lallybroch’s laird. They are somewhat isolated on Jamie’s land, but it is not long before the new laird is betrayed by one of his own and is taken to Wentworth Prison where Black Jack Randall is waiting. Claire is determined to rescue Jamie against impossible odds. This leads to a highly charged climax to the novel.

I always intended to read Outlander. Honest, I did! However, I was in a place in my life when books took a back seat to filmmaking and other artistic pursuits and stayed that way for well over a decade. So the series remained undiscovered by me until three years ago when I heard a few of my artist friends talking about An Echo in the Bone and I thought that I should at least give the original book a try.

I was transported into this romantic world full of beautiful historical details that had an interesting time travel element. It was like nothing I had read before. The story between Claire and Jamie is rich and full featured, their love simply grows as they age, like the complexity of a fine wine. It has since become one of my favorite book series. I’m discovering that most of my friends are fans of this series as well. 2014 will see the debut of Outlander on cable television as Starz begins to produce the story, one book per 16 episode season. It has won an award for best new television series in the UK.

Don’t make my mistake and put off reading Outlander. If you like romance, historical fiction, Scotland, or time travel stories, Diana Galbadon will deliver.

Outlander Book CoverOutlander (1991) (published in the UK and Australia as Cross Stitch)
Dragonfly in Amber (1992)
Voyager (1994)
Drums of Autumn (1997)
The Fiery Cross (2001)
A Breath of Snow and Ashes (2005)
An Echo in the Bone (2009)
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014)

Book Review: The Sword in the Stone

Book Name: The Sword in the Stone
Author: T.H. White
First Published: 1938

T.H. White was born in Bombay, British India, to Garrick Hanbury White and Constance White. His parents separated when he was fourteen years of age and he returned to England to finish his schooling in Gloucestershire. He later studied at Queens’ College in Cambridge where he was tutored by scholar and author L.J. Potts. Potts would become his friend and correspondent throughout his life. White considered him to be “the great literary influence in my life.” It was at Queens’ College that White wrote a thesis on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and was exposed to the legends of King Arthur.

After his graduation in 1928 he began teaching and to write. His first novels were science fiction. Earth Stopped in 1934 and its sequel Gone to Ground in 1935 concerned dystopian themes. Once they were completed, White was searching for a new subject to write about. He wrote to a friend in 1937, “I got desperate among my books and picked [Malory] up in lack of anything else. Then I was thrilled and astonished to find that (a) The thing was a perfect tragedy, with a beginning, a middle and an end implicit in the beginning and (b) the characters were real people with recognizable reactions which could be forecast[...] Anyway, I somehow started writing a book.”

This book was The Sword in the Stone, which White considered a preface to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that he had written his thesis upon. It would bring a child’s delight to the story of Arthur’s early days and was influenced by Freudian psychology and White’s love of natural history. The book became a Book of the Month Club selection in 1939.

In 1939 White moved to Ireland where he remained during the second world war as a conscientious objector. During his time there, he wrote the sequels to The Sword in the Stone, The Witch in the Wood and the Ill-Made Knight.

White died of heart failure in 1964 while aboard a ship en route from Piraeus, Greece after a lecture tour in the United States. He is buried in Athens and his papers are held by the University of Texas at Austin, USA. White had no children and was never married.

Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England.

The Sword in the Stone began as a single novel, but later became the first tome of the classic series The Once and Future King. Of all five books, it is the most lighthearted and could be considered a young adult novel. The rest of the series is darker and clearly for adult readers. The Sword in the Stone follows the story of a young orphan boy who is nicknamed “Wart”. He lives with Sir Ector, a knight of the King and works as a page in medieval Great Britain. One day, while retrieving one of Sir Ector’s birds, which his foster brother Kay has lost, he meets Merlin, a wise wizard who lives his life backwards, growing young as the years go by. Merlin knows Wart’s true heritage and has come to tutor the boy. He becomes both Wart’s and Kay’s teacher.

Merlin and Wart go on a series of learning adventures, each one designed to teach Wart the skills necessary to become a great and wise ruler. Wart rescues people with Robin Hood and Maid Marian, goes on a quest with King Pellinore for a beast, and turns into a wide variety of animals to experience the world in new and more interesting perspectives. In the end, he gains enough knowledge and wisdom to fulfill his destiny, to pull Excalibur from the anvil and be proclaimed the rightful King of England. For Wart is actually King Arthur of Camelot and he will become the stuff of legends.

The Once and Future King is a reworking of Sir Thomas Malory’s 15th Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact T.H. White wrote in a cameo appearance for Malory as one of the historical figures that populate the tales. While the first book is light-hearted and has a boy protagonist, White follows the entire life of King Arthur including many of the darker aspects of his life in the later books. This is not a series for children, although The Sword in the Stone can be thought of as a young adult novel. The books are full of medieval references that could be confusing to those that are not familiar with common terms of the time period, yet the writing style is quite readable and as the story continues, the darker side of man is revealed.

The Sword in the Stone was made into a famous cartoon by Walt Disney in 1963. The movie features a famous battle between Merlin and the Sorceress Madam Mim. This battle was removed from later editions of the novel by the author and usually is not found in the later collections of the series. Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical “Camelot” is based on the last two books of The Once and Future King series and later this musical was turned into a movie of the same name in 1967.

You’ll find references to these stories woven into our pop culture from the Broadway musical and the movie, to its being an inspiration to author J.K. Rowling as she wrote her Harry Potter series and to Neil Gaimann’s character of Tim Hunter. If you enjoy the legends of King Arthur or stories about the middle ages and have some familiarity with the time period, you will find this series of books to be enjoyable.

The Sword in the Stone Book CoverThe Once and Future King

The Sword in the Stone (1938)
The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939, original version The Witch in the Wood)
The Ill-Made Knight (1940)
The Candle in the Wind (1958)
The Book of Merlyn (1977)

Author Interview: Christine Frost

Christine Frost is a historical and speculative fiction author who explores the lives of real women in history. It is a pleasure to introduce her here on No Wasted Ink.

Author Christine FrostMy name is Christine Frost, and I’ve been working in publishing and communications for nearly 20 years. I’m also a teaching assistant and writing instructor for literature courses at Harvard Extension School. In addition to writing novels, I study world history, and it serves as the core inspiration for the stories I create. I love to cook, and whenever possible, I integrate that passion into my novels; I run a series on my blog about the history of cooking in fiction. I live in the Boston area with my husband, and we enjoy Renaissance festivals and everything from sci-fi to historical and epic fantasy series.

When and why did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. I used to staple paper together in elementary school and write and illustrate stories, and during high school, I was very introverted and spent much of my time working on a fantasy trilogy that I’m still developing, though it’s changed a lot. But it all coalesced in the summer of 1994, when my brother died in an accident. He had just recommended that I watch The Crow, starring Brandon Lee. I saw it with his friends while the funeral was being planned, and the movie had an enormous impact on me. The sudden loss threw me into a tailspin—so I began writing a massive work, a dark urban fantasy that was very much influenced by the movie. It was my way of keeping his memory alive. Like the fantasy trilogy I wrote in high school, it remains unfinished and is being redeveloped, but it was while writing that story to help me deal with the grief that I realized I wanted to be an author.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

When I started working on my master’s degree in literature and creative writing. At the end of a graduate certificate program for communications, I took a creative writing workshop, which led to me applying for the master’s program. I took a number of workshops and courses having to do with medieval literature, such as one on Tolkien’s influences. It was then I really learned how to focus on following through with a story and come to appreciate the intensive revising process.

Can you share a little about your current book with us?

Dark Lady of Doona is about Grania O’Malley, who is also known as the Irish pirate queen. While I’m a sticker for verisimilitude in my work, the premise is based on speculation that she may have served as a spy in order to help retain her territory at a time when the English were especially brutal in Ireland. So, while it is historical fiction, it has elements of a spy novel, only set in the 1500s during the time of Elizabeth I. It’s about Grania’s strength—in protecting her family, in being a formidable captain who commanded hundreds of men, and making a mark on history at a time when women weren’t as visible in the public realm.

What inspired you to write this book?

The more I read, the more unusual women I find who have been marginalized by history. I want to give them a voice and let them tell their story. It began with my first novel, about the consort to Romanian warlord Vlad Dracula. I have a long list of stories to write based on this idea, and they span all eras and places, from ancient Mesopotamia to Maine during the War of 1812 and beyond. Grania O’Malley was particularly inspiring to me, and learning about medieval Ireland was a wonderful opportunity to explore my family’s heritage.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I’d say it’s changed over the years. I was strongly influenced by dense, very complex Gothic novels, but have learned to pare down wording and structure. What I’ve learned from teaching writing is that developing a writing style is always a work in progress.

How did you come up with the title of this book?

Grania O’Malley earned the nickname Dark Lady of Doona after conquering a castle. She sought vengeance against a rival clan who killed a lover, and Doona was the name of the castle. As soon as I saw the name while doing research for the book, I knew it had to be the title. It’s poignant, yet shows her tremendous fortitude.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I love finding these incredible women and showing how powerful they were in what has traditionally been considered a man’s world. And it’s never an easy road, no matter what their station in life. They’re often the outliers, the rebels who have a hand in shaping history, even though the recognition was slight or late in the coming. I hope that readers will see Grania O’Malley as a symbol of perseverance—and that it may spark an interest in delving into history to see what fascinating things are there that have important lessons to teach all of us.

Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

I don’t think so. People who know me well may be able to identify little things, quirks and behaviors that help with characterization, but overall, I try to create an authentic portrait for these historical figures, so I stick to what I’ve learned through my research.

What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?

My early years were influenced by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake’s fabulous Gormenghast series, and Neil Gaiman. I love epic fantasy in particular, but Neil Gaiman’s innovative style and how he uses myth and urban fantasy is very inspirational to me. In recent years, I’ve become fond of Modernist authors such as John Dos Passos, and reading Cormac McCarthy was a game-changer in terms of learning about how beautifully lyrical yet sparse writing styles can be, even when portraying the depths of the bleakest worlds.

If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?

I’ve been fortunate in this regard. When working on my master’s, I had the opportunity to learn from Stratis Haviaris, who was the founding editor of the Harvard Review, and Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Tinkers in 2010. I’m immensely grateful to have been able to work with them both.

Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?

I have a background in graphic design, so I did this one myself.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Never give up. All too often, as a student and teacher, I’ve heard people say writing is hard. It is, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Dig deep—get into the soul of your writing style by reading your work out loud; don’t be afraid to revise until it feels right—you’ll know when it resonates with you. And like many other writers advise, read as much as possible. Go outside of your favorite genres and explore everything you can. You never know what amazing new influences you may gain.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Thank you to all the readers out there! Your feedback and reviews have helped me evolve as a writer, and I’ve enjoyed hearing from many of you.

Dark Lady of Doona  Book CoverChristine Frost
Boston, MA

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Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Name: The Good Earth
Author: Pearl S. Buck
First Published: 1931
Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932

Born in 1892, Pearl Sydenstricker was the fourth of seven children to Southern Presbyterian missionaries Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Her birth was at the end of their furlough in the United States and when Pearl was three months old, the family returned to China and it was there that the author would spend the majority of the first forty years of her life. The family lived in Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province, and then in a small city lying at the junction of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. Her father was away from home most of the time, in search of new Christian converts, and her mother spent her time raising her children and ministering to the local Chinese women in a small dispensary that she had established.

In her memoir, Pearl S Buck recalled that she lived in “several worlds,” one was the “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents,” and this was surrounded by the “big, loving, merry, not-too-clean, Chinese world.” There was little connection between these two cultures as she grew up. Pearl was taught western customs and English by her mother, classic Chinese by a hired tutor, and learned the local dialect from her Chinese friends. A few years later, Pearl was enrolled in a local western school and was dismayed by the attitudes of her fellow students, who could not speak Chinese and did not view the Chinese people as equals. This dismay would stay with her and influence much of her writing in later years. She took a fancy to the novels of Charles Dickens, which her father disapproved of, and included a reading of his novels once a year in addition to the other books she read.

When Pearl S. Buck was of college age, she returned to the United States and enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia and graduated there in 1914. She had intended to remain in the United States, but was given word that her mother was ill and so returned to be with her in China. In 1915, Pearl met a young agricultural economist named John Lossing Buck and they married in 1917. The couple moved to an impoverished village in rural Anhui province. It was in this community that the author gathered the material that would later serve as the foundation research for her novel The Good Earth and other stories that she would write about Chinese culture.

Pearl and Lossing’s marriage was rocky from the start, but they remained together for eighteen years before divorcing. Their daughter Carol was born in 1921. The child was diagnosed with PKU and retarded. In addition, during Carol’s delivery, a uterine tumor was discovered in Pearl and she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy. Several years later, Pearl and Lossing would adopt a baby girl named Janice, but would continue to care for Carol as best they could.

From 1920 through 1933, Pearl and Lossing lived on the campus of Nanking University where both were teachers. When Pearl’s mother died, her father came to live with them. Tensions both inside their family and the outside world came to a head in 1927 during the “Nanking Incident” where a battle involving Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, communist forces, assorted warlords and several westerners were murdered. The Buck family spent a chilling day in hiding until they were rescued by American gunboats. The Americans took them to Japan where they remained in safety until they were able to return to Nanking.

It was during this frenzied time that Pearl had begun to publish essays and short stories in magazines such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and Atlantic Monthly. In 1931, her second novel, The Good Earth, would be published by the John Day Company. It would become a best-selling novel, win the Pulitzer Prize and Howells Medal in 1935, be adapted as a major MGM film starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in 1937, and be instrumental in her gaining the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first American woman to claim that honor.

As Pearl’s first marriage crumbled and the circumstances in China deteriorated, she decided to return to the United States on a permanent basis. She was now married to Richard Walsh, the editor that handled her books at the John Day Company, and she wanted to be closer to him and to her daughter Carol, whom had been placed in an New Jersey institution. Pearl and Richard bought an old farmhouse called Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The couple adopted six children together. Pearl founded “Welcome House”, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency that helped Amerasian children who would otherwise not be eligible for adoption. She also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which helps children in Asian countries. Pearl S. Buck lived to be 81 years of age and is buried at Green Hills Farm.

The Good Earth begins when Chinese Farmer Wang Lung walks to the noble house of Hwang in a nearby town to procure the slave that his father has arranged to be his wife. He arrives with peaches as a wedding gift and buys a little pork for their meager wedding feast. O-Lan proves to be a supportive and hardworking wife, joining Wang Lung out in the fields, and providing him with sons and a daughter. While they are poor, the couple is content. They work hard on their farm and slowly, Wang Lung earns enough to be able to buy some of the land from the House of Hwang. The desire to own land is the one thing that sets Wang Lung apart from the other farmers. Part of this desire is from pride, but he also realizes that owning good farm land is key to his providing the necessary cushion to keep himself and his family from starvation during lean years. As a man, he loves working his crops and bringing them to harvest and this fierce love of the land is the one constant in his life.

A famine comes and wipes out everything that they have. Wang Lung and his family must flee to the south in order to find food. He sells everything that he has left except for his land and house. In the southern city, O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw. While they do not stave, they remain in poverty, and have little hope of returning to their house and farm. Wang Lung also lives in fear of being conscripted into the army. During this time his eldest daughter becomes mentally handicapped as a result of severe malnutrition. Wang Lung calls her his “little fool”. Their second daughter is born and she is killed to spare her the misery of living in hardship. This allows the resources they have to help the others survive.

When food riots break out in the city, Wang Lung joins a mob that loots a rich man’s house. He confronts the owner of the home and the man offers him all his money in exchange for mercy. At the same time, O-lan finds jewels in another house and hides them on her person. The money that Wang Lung is given is enough to take his family back home to the farm. He is able to buy a new ox, farm tools and a few workers to help him on the land. Later, O-lan confesses to the possession of the jewels, and Wang Lung takes them from her, except for a pair of seed pearls that she coveted. With the money from the jewels, Wang Lung buys all of the land of the House of Hwang.

Wang Lung now is a prosperous man, but while his income is secure, inter-family problems begin to surface and take him away from his former work ethic and honesty. His sons, who he worked hard to send to school, now do not wish to work the land. Wang Lung himself suffers a mid-life crisis. He falls for a younger woman named Lotus and takes her on as a mistress. He ignores the wife that stood by him during the hard times, calling her plain. One day, he removes the pair of seed pearls that O-Lan had asked to keep and makes them into earrings for his mistress. This breaks his wife’s heart and she sickens with illness and eventually dies. Only when she is gone does Wang Lung realize what she means to him.

As an old man, Wang Lung seeks to find peace. His first and second sons are constantly arguing, and their wives do not get along. They talk about selling the land and do not have the same values as their father. Wang Lung’s third son runs away to join the army. There is no one left but his “little fool” and the land. The old man tries to warn his sons that to lose the land is to lose everything. They assure him that they will never sell the farm, but over his head they smile knowingly at each other.

The Good Earth works on many levels. It is a depiction of a culture that little was known of when the book was first published, showing how these people chose to live without making comments or passing judgment on their customs, such as selling girls into slavery or binding their feet which we would find horrifying today. Instead Buck portrays what happens as the way these people live and lets the facts speak for themselves. The story also works as a family drama with all the interpersonal relationships and the cyclic nature of their rags to riches story. Despite that the novel is set in a time and place that is foreign to many of us in the modern world, the characters are real and are easy to relate to, even with the cultural differences. Wang Lung is not all that different from any modern American farmer, except he walks to the local tea house to shoot the breeze instead of driving his truck to the local bar in Oklahoma. This classic novel is one of my personal favorites and I highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

The Good Earth Book CoverThe House of Earth Series:

The Good Earth (1931)
Sons (1932)
A House Divided (1935)