“Between Two Worlds: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck” is a timely work – and not just because Buck’s birthday is Saturday. In our ever-shrinking world, the book helps readers learn to read and speak more than one language and manages to connect two cultures with a topic of interest to both. Let me quote the publisher:
“Between Two Worlds: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck offers a fresh new account of this famous woman born of two nations. It is a multicultural effort that Buck would surely approve. Written by an American author and a British author, about an American author living in China, it is translated by a Chinese man living in America, for Chinese readers who want to study English!”
The American author living in China is the Nobel Prize-winning Buck, born in Hillsboro, Pocahontas County. In another wild and wonderful connection, the American author is a West Virginian, Edwina Pendarvis of Huntington.
The 2009 biography captures the spirit of Buck’s life as well as its dichotomies: her love of China and her love of America; her life as a missionary’s daughter and her doubts about mission work; her position as a wife and mother and her burning need to write.
The book’s cover is attractive: an appealing black and white photograph of the young Buck. The pages feel like rice-paper and are suitably bordered in soft tones of lavender and gray. It looks reader-friendly, and it is. Its goal is to enable Chinese students to learn English, Buck’ s mother tongue, just as she learned theirs so many years ago.
The format of the book makes it easy to use. The top of each page is in sixth- and seventh-grade level English and the bottom in high school-level Chinese. Sidebars explain words such as Confederate, Union, alma mater, and zodiac for the new reader of English. The two hundred eight pages are divided into twenty short chapters. It is a book students will not find daunting due to size or language.
The text uses interesting concepts and comparisons to illustrate Buck’s double heritage – a heritage she grappled with from her birth in 1892 to her death in 1973.
“The day was June 26. The year was 1892, year of the dragon.
According to the Chinese zodiac, babies born in the year of the dragon grow up to be high-spirited, big-hearted, and bold. Most people in the town of Hillsboro hadn’t heard of the Chinese Zodiac. Those who had heard of it didn’t pay much attention to it. True, they planted by the seasons and sometimes by the phases of the moon. They even read horoscopes in the newspaper occasionally; but they didn’t really believe the stars affected anyone’s destiny.”
As is conventional in biographies for young people, the authors dramatized incidents in Buck’s life by adding dialogue. For details of incidents, they drew on Buck’s accounts of her life in her autobiography and in the biographies she wrote of her mother and father, as well as her sister’s account of Buck’s life.
The authors, West Virginia’s Pendarvis and Kentucky’s Christina St. Clair (formerly a Brit), show how this great author became inspired to write great literature and what inspired her to work for racial and gender equality. She was shaped by both her Appalachian heritage and the China in which she grew up, a tumultuous country changing from imperial dynasty to a republic.
According to Pendarvis, the co-authors hope readers come away from the biography intrigued by Buck’s humanitarian efforts and her civil rights activism, as well as the variety and quality of her published work. Hopefully, new readers will be eager to read some of the fascinating books and stories written by her, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first native-born West Virginian to have her novel — in this case, “The Good Earth” — named an Oprah’s Book Club selection (2004).
West Virginia celebrates Pearl S. Buck’s birthday each year on June 26 at her birthplace in Hillsboro. The 2010 celebration includes a tea, music, and a visit from Dr. Peter Conn, author of “Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography,” and much more. For information, visit the website or call 304-653-4430.