Willow is a destitute child in Southern China, reduced to begging and stealing for food, until she becomes friends with the local missionary’s daughter, Pearl Sydenstricker. From that moment on, their lives intertwine, as Pearl goes on to become a famous writer after her share of struggles and Willow experiences the worst of the new Communist regime under Chairman Mao. Throughout they remain friends and in contact wherever possible, sharing pain, sorrow, and joy.
This is such a touching book. The friendship between Pearl and Willow feels right and true, from its development to its end. It’s not a perfect friendship, as of course there are roadblocks as there might be between any two women. Towards the end, with the effect of the Cultural Revolution, no letters are allowed at all, and Willow finds herself endlessly wondering what is happening to her friend even as she endures persecution for refusing to denounce Pearl. This is certainly the darkest and slowest part of the book, but these things genuinely happened to people, and they deserved their place here.
I found it so interesting that Pearl is genuinely regarded as a Chinese writer. She spent the large majority of the first forty years of her life in China, spoke Chinese fluently, and had a great understanding of Chinese people. The author writes in her prologue that when she read The Good Earth, it was so accurate and so moving a picture of Chinese peasants that it made her cry and inspired her to write this book. The parts reflecting Pearl’s life are drawn from history (I’m not sure if Willow was a real person or not) and I’ve been totally inspired to learn more about her life. She seems like such a fascinating and driven woman, confronted with obstacles but determined to surmount them in the end.
Pearl of China is a great book for those of us who are interested in China. The more I read, the more I want to read, and this was a fantastic choice for fiction. I’m looking forward to reading more by Anchee Min.
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