“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
Pearl S. Buck was born June 26, 1892, though her birthday Monday didn’t elicit much notice. Best known from high school reading lists as the author of The Good Earth, the 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winner, she later used her literary platform to bring attention to social injustices such as segregation. Writing in 2008, Jennifer Cody Epstein considered Buck’s “unabashed fascination with outside worlds and unanticipated heroes and heroines” to be her greatest legacy.
Epstein was celebrating Peony, Buck’s novel about the dwindling, highly assimilated Jewish community in Kaifeng, China. “Like many tales of Jewry, Peony, published in May 1948, is one of struggle, and of loss,” Epstein writes. “The struggle, in this case, isn’t against the normal dangers (persecution, pogroms, and exile) but against overwhelming acceptance. And the loss isn’t one of life, but of Jewish identity.” The Jewish presence in Kaifeng dates back several thousand years, though accounts vary (Judaism was referred to as “the religion which removes the sinew”).
It’s worth looking back at Peony now as debates over intermarriage and identity consume much of Jewish discourse. “But perhaps the most important battle takes place within David himself,” Epstein writes of Buck’s character:
Beween the dutiful Jewish son and the easygoing Chinese youth he had been. Well aware his bridal choice dictates not only his fate but his people’s (a point Madame Ezra underscores, with maternal aplomb: “Such a good girl, David—a good wife!” she implores. “Don’t break your mother’s heart! Think of our people!”) he finds himself facing timeless questions: “Would he keep himself separate, dedicated to a faith that made him solitary among whatever people he lived, or would he pour the stream of his life into the rich ocean of human life about him?”
Read In Bloom, by Jennifer Cody Epstein