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She grew up in China with a Chinese nurse, whom she called her “Amah," who tended her until she was of school age. She learned both Asian and American customs while she was young. Of those years, she says, “I saw poor and starving people in a famine year, but my parents bade me help them in relief, and I learned early that trouble and suffering can always be relieved if there is the will to do it, and in that knowledge I have found escape from despair throughout my life." She went on to say, “It is better to learn early of the inevitable depths, for then sorrow and death take their proper place in life, and one is not afraid." Indeed, she saw her own mother as “quick in mind and strong in heart and not easily afraid." Pearl S. Buck herself showed determination and strength throughout her life and work, the same determination and strength she breathes into her female characters.

While Buck is often credited with exploring East-West issues, she is not as often praised, as are writers such as Joan Dideon and Erica Jong, with examining female dissatisfaction, struggle, and ultimate empowerment. In The Lovers and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction assembled by the Pearl S. Buck Foundation after Buck’s death in 1973, I found those issues to be at the fore.

Take “Miranda," for example. The main female character, Miranda, is a dedicated surgeon who remains very aloof from her male counterpart until the end of the story. She is the best in her field and is strong in her refusal to get involved with Roger Brace while she is dedicated to her work. In this story, we see a woman struggle with her professional identity, societal expectations for her, and her personal life.

Also concerned with the lives of doctors and surgeons is “Answer to Life," the longest story in the collection and also the first. Jennet and her mother, Dr. Angie Maclean, are the main characters. Jennet is just graduating from college as a summa cum laude, and her mother is a children’s doctor. Jennet is accepted to a college of surgery even though she is a woman. Dr. Farland interviews her for her admission:

“Well, I won’t take you in surgery. There’s no relying on women students. I’ve tried before. We spend time and strength on them and in a year or two they marry and it’s all wasted. I’ve got to go."
“You’ll have to take me."
“Aren’t you going to get married?"
“That has nothing to do with my being a surgeon, I think, Dr. Farland."
“Women – you’re constitutionally unfitted for the sort of thing a surgeon has to do."
“Try me!"
“Damn you, I remember you were a stubborn child and now you’ve grown into a stubborn woman,’ he signs the acceptance papers. ‘All right! Watch me make you sweat, young woman!"

Jennet puts all her energy into her studies, but Dr. Farland’s fear comes true. Jennet falls in love with his son, Francis, and she drops out of school before the end of the first year to marry him. Then, just as she put all her energies into studying, she put all her energies into being Francis’s wife and then mother to his two children.

Soon Jennet wants Francis to be more than he is, more than he feels he can be. “Jennet feels, ‘He lacks ambition for himself. He can’t seem to get up in the morning in time to get to work, and when he’s in the office he doesn’t get through in time to get home early. I know exactly what happens. He talks and enjoys anybody who comes in – chats with the stenographers probably when there’s no one else. Everybody adores him as I do or believes in him as I do. I know what he could be if he would.’"

They grow apart, until eventually Francis stays away from home as much as possible and, predictably, begins sleeping with his secretary. After she finds out, Jennet is heartbroken, but, in typical Buck fashion, she is strong, she survives.

Taking the children to her mother, Dr. Maclean, Jennet and her mom have a chat:

“’We aren’t easy wives, perhaps for ordinary men. We can’t help that. We’re women – first.’"
“Can you think of any chance for me – except one?"
“Work," Dr. Maclean said.
“Work," Jennet agreed steadily.

Like Miranda, Jennet struggles with her ambitions, her place in a working (man’s) world, and her societal call to be a wife and mother in the woman’s sphere. In this case, Jennet returns to college to study surgery. Of course, Buck won’t allow her to be just any surgeon. Jennet decides to specialize in brain surgery – the hardest specialization of them all.

Jennet is not the only one in “Answer to Life" to struggle with her ambitions, her home life, her work calling; her mother also struggles. Jennet’s father, Gareth, was and still is the leading heart specialist, although he rarely practices anymore. When he came home from the First World War, he had typhoid and had been sent home sick; he had recovered physically, but had not been the same mentally since.

Angie tries to pull him out of his shell, but each time she tries he retreats a little further. He speaks very slowly, rarely shows emotion, and is slow at performing even the simplest of tasks.

One day, Gareth muses about Jennet’s situation with Francis, about her giving up work on her surgery degree to be Francis’s wife. He says, “It changed her because she couldn’t give up her true nature. Too much energy, too much power in her, applied to a small area. He [Francis] wanted to get away from it. It was too much for him." Suddenly, Angie realizes he is saying this not just about Francis, but also about himself. His behavior, his lethargy was because, like Francis’s situation with Jennet, Gareth was unable to handle Angie’s power. He saw her trying to be his wife and not what was of her “true nature." Gareth had to get away from her. First, he joined the army; then he cheated on her; then he retreated within himself.

Angie had to remain strong to deal with Gareth’s handicap and also had to continue to work to provide for both Gareth and her, then, young daughter. Angie’s determination paid off, in that she was able to send Jennet to college and medical school. Jennet grew up to have her father’s talent as a surgeon and her mother’s strength.

Another significant story is “The Two Women" about a woman, Stella, who has been divorced from her husband for three years. She has a comfortable job as an editor and her own house. One day, her ex-husband arrives unexpectedly. They fight verbally, but “she has learned how to live alone," so she has the upper hand and tells him to leave.

After he is gone, she contemplates visiting his house to see his wife. For three years, he has been married to another woman. She goes to visit. At the end of her visit, she says to his wife, “Have your baby. And if once in a while he stops by my house to talk, to complain, to argue, to- to- whatever he happens to want to do, don’t worry. I’ll keep him in your bounds, my dear. You can trust me. You’ll be safer with me than with some other woman who doesn’t know him as I do – or as I know you, now that I’ve seen you."

Stella thinks to herself as she leaves, “She was glad she had put it into words, for herself. She’d not take him back, or only just enough to make him content to be faithful to his wife. Ah, that was the primary loyalty between women, the only loyalty that mattered, if the world were not to lose its balance! And then, having settled three lives into place again and thus prepared for the birth of a child, she walked briskly toward a waiting taxicab, stepped inside, and told the cabby to take her to her office." Stella found the strength, the will to let go of her husband and head back to work.

The lessons Buck had learned as a girl growing up in China, watching her mother, lace the pages of these stories: escape from despair comes from being strong at heart. As a scholar in the twenty-first century, I find it interesting to wander through these pages and watch the heroines struggle with women’s issues that are still relevant today. Buck seems to tell us: “Women, you can get along fine by yourselves. You can have your own career or you can balance a career and family. Through some relationships, you may be able to find stability and strength, and through others you may need to find the determination to remove yourselves from the situation to improve your lives. You can be equal and sometimes even superior to men in certain job situations. Be powerful. Be strong."

My, what wonderful advice.

November 2004

From Christy Donaldson, reference librarian and assistant professor at Montana State University

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