Sunday, January 25, 2009
The Living Reed, by Pearl S. Buck
An epic historical fiction that follows Korean modern history (about 1850s through 1945) through the eyes of the male members of four generations of Kims of Andong. The patriarch is a courtier to King Gojong, his son the main protagonist to the murdered Queen Min. His first reckless son becomes the Living Reed, a hero for Korean Independence who travels throughout China and comes to reject Communism; his second son marries a Christian and becomes a local patriot, dying with his wife in a church set fire by the occupying Japanese. This martyr's son is the final focus of the story, and he is modeled on a couple whom Ms. Buck met while traveling the length of Korea after the war. Buck's skill and talent for portraying the life of real people and their culture and history is apparent, though at times the story is bogged down by insertion of detailed historical information, which many readers will undoubtedly find fascinating and instructive. Her research is impressive and I wondered at her sources, coming as they were during the immediate postwar period of the fifties and sixties. There are moments of descriptive power and literary wisdom, but like in her more famous novel, Buck tends to overemphasize the obvious, and there's a sense that this novel's sweeping content overwhelms the story and the connectedness we might otherwise have had with its characters.