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A Wonderful Surprise
The Living Reed
Pearl S. Buck
Moyer Bell Limited; Mount Kisco, New York; 1963
Review by Jerry Winzig
If you are not yet a Pearl Buck fan -- and I was not before reading The Living Reed, her 1963 historical novel about Korea -- then you truly don't know what you're missing. Buck is better known for her books about China, where she was a Christian missionary before the fall of Nationalist China in 1949, and The Living Reed was written when she was 71. But this novel's language and personal relationships have a remarkably contemporary feel. The love story between Il-han and Sunia is surprisingly intense, its endurance through three generations is poignant, and the Christian theme, which emerges only gradually, is powerful and genuine. This story feels like it was written by a younger person clearly in tune with the nuances of Korean culture over the course of many years.
The book opens with these words: "The year was 4214 after Tangun of Korea, and 1881 after Jesus of Judea. It was spring in the capital city of Seoul, a good season for a child to be born, and a fair day. Il-han, surnamed Kim, of the clan of Andong, sat in his library waiting for the birth of his second child to be announced." Il-han is one of the highest-ranking noblemen in Korea before the Japanese occupation, and as a young man is very concerned about form and proper behavior. As he waits for the child's birth, his servant brings in his oldest son, who has lost his temper and trampled down a number of bamboo shoots in the family garden.
Il-han gives his son a short lesson on why bamboo is so valuable, and goes on to explain: "You have destroyed food, you have destroyed life. Though it is only a hollow reed, it is a living reed. Now the roots must send up other shoots to take the place of those you have destroyed." Those words become a central theme of the book, which follows the lives of Il-han, his wife, Sunia, and their children and grandchildren for the next six decades as Korea's monarchy collapses and the country is decimated by the Japanese occupation. The nobleman Il-han lives to see his son become a legendary revolutionary figure in occupied Korea, going by the name of "The Living Reed."
The relationship between Il-han and Sunia is fascinating. Married at a time when women were clearly unequal to men, their relationship grows increasingly equal as they confront and deal with the adversities that change the Korea they once knew. Il-han is a key advisor to the Queen, but Sunia soon realizes there might be more to her husband's relationship with the queen than political and asks Il-han what the queen looks like. Their exchange is intriguing:
"How do I know how she looks?" he had replied. "I try never to look higher than her knees, and if possible no higher than the hem of her skirt."
"But you do look higher," Sunia had insisted, teasing and serious at the same time.
"Not if I can help it," he said sturdily.
"But sometimes you cannot help it?"
"Whatever you are trying to make me say I will not say it," he had declared.
One of the most appealing aspects of this novel is that its characters grow and change and develop. Much later, Sunia visits the queen in a successful attempt to prevent the execution of all those who participated in an unsuccessful coup against the king and queen. On her return, Il-han says to her: "You have done well, my wife, better than I myself could have done. From now on I share all my life with you. Man and woman, we are equal, partners in everything. I shall have no secrets from you, ever, so long as I live."
Also intriguing is how we are led to see the emerging role of Christianity in Korea from the point of view of non-Christian Confucian Koreans, who are highly skeptical of the foreign missionaries, distrustful of their motives, and put off by their physical appearance and rude western manners. Il-han is especially distrustful. But his second son, Yul-han, meets Induk, a young Christian girl, and in the chaos of occupied Korea resolves to marry her, even though their families have not arranged it. So enraptured is he that he decides to become Christian before he even knows what Christianity is.
But when he does learn, he goes to visit the western missionary to tell him why Christianity is so appealing to occupied Korea:
What do the Japanese rulers think when they see vast crowds of Christians and these meetings in which they take part? They smell rebellion and revolution and so they send their spies to the meetings to listen and to report. These spies hear your Christians singing "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war." What was that song you bade them sing in the church this morning? "Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the Cross." And what did you preach, you American soldier of the Cross? You told us the story of a young man named David, who with a small sling and a few pebbles killed the powerful evil giant, Goliath. And how was it that David could kill the giant and whence had he this power? Weak as he was, young as he was, his heart was pure, his cause was just, and so with God's help he prevailed. That is what you teach us.
The dynamics of this novel are complex and powerful. Americans are seen as appealing and even heroic at times, yet Buck does not hesitate to tell the truth about the United States' failure to live up to its 1883 treaty of amity and commerce, or President Woodrow Wilson's betrayal of Korea to Japan after World War I. None of the characters in the book are one-dimensional figures, whether servants, foreign missionaries, royalty, or Japanese occupiers. That is it's appeal. Read this book and you'll feel like you've lived through part of Korea's experience from 1881 to 1946.
Copyright © 1999-2004 Winzig Consulting Services.