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A Pearl: My Family's Life in China

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Tom Matlack celebrates the remarkable life of his great-aunt, Pearl Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Strangled baby girls strewn across fields and eaten by packs of dogs. Pots of human excrement breeding disease. Grotesquely deformed girls' feet bound to ensure male dominance. Women crying in the night for their lost babies. A white-skinned family in a region of China the size of Texas. A devout Presbyterian inspired by God at the expense of his wife and children to save those millions of souls. A mother, heartbroken by the loss of child after child to disease, who still found the strength to save her remaining children's lives by inviting for a formal tea starving farmers set upon killing her family.

This is the world that created Pearl Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, a woman who set the foundation for the feminist movement, changed the view of the East in the West, and revolutionized adoption.

As Hilary Spurling says in her recently published book, "Burying the Bones," Pearl "had the magic power to tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination.''

I recently spoke to Spurling because the missionaries in China about whom she wrote, Absalom and Carrie Sydenstricker, were my great-grandparents. Their daughter Grace was my grandmother and Pearl Buck my great-aunt.

Spurling wrote that Absalom "retreated behind what had long since become an impenetrable barrier against emotions that threatened to swamp him.''

"It wasn't that he didn't have emotions,'' she told me, it was that he had to build a shell around those emotions to protect himself, despite the great loss to himself and his family who suffered mightily at his absence in body and soul. Pearl's genius, according to Spurling, was her ability to see how her father's shell cut him off. But it was also her vision that could see through it to discover a man who she could understand, and ultimately forgive for his obsession with proving his manhood.

Absalom married my great-grandmother and set off for missionary work in China in 1880. By the time Pearl was born during a trip home a decade later, Absalom had saved fewer than a dozen souls and the couple had endured profound tragedy. When their son Arthur died, Absalom brought Carrie and their daughter Edith to the city, where they both got cholera. Edith died a fortnight after Arthur perished, and Carrie remained gravely ill, demanding to go home with or without her husband.

Absalom said of Carrie at that time, "I never saw so hard a heart, so unreasoned a mind ... nothing I could say would move her.'' He was referring to her selfish need to mourn the loss of her babies when there was a whole nation of infidels who needed saving. My grandmother described her mother during that time: "The death of those two children coming so close together almost deranged her.''

Pearl was born on the trip home after Edith and Arthur had passed on, and my grandmother Grace followed seven years later in China. Absalom never admitted that his mission was anything less than an edict from God, but Carrie's strength became a model for her daughters who passed it down to my mom and, I hope, my daughter who bears Grace's name.

As a young girl Pearl was left to wander the hillside, a blue-eyed alien in a foreign land, which was all she knew. Where other children might have made mud pies, Pearl collected the dead bones of unwanted female babies and gave them a proper burial. She had a special stick she used to fend off the dogs.

She was drawn to funerals of the wealthier farmers who could afford them. Overhearing her Chinese neighbors talk about how the missionaries ground up babies' eyes to treat disease, as just a little girl squatting in the weeds, she spoke the truth.

"Everything you say is lies,'' she told them in their own tongue, causing women to scream with fear at having seen the foreign devil. In a way, the body of Pearl's work was an attempt to make the world see a deeper truth of the bones buried just beneath the surface.

Read Tom Matlack's complete interview with Pearl Buck biographer Hilary Spurling on Scribd:

Tom Matlack, Hilary Spurling, And Pearl Buck

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