August 22, 2008

Peony by Pearl S. Buck

Yeah, I've been on a Pearl S. Buck kick lately. Buck had a very interesting life. She grew up in China with her missionary parents. Most missionaries lived in special compounds, isolated from the native population, but Buck's family lived in the city and integrated. Buck was herself working as a professor in a Chinese university when the revolution forced her to leave. So she had a rare insight to pre-revolutionary Chinese life and culture.

Peony is interesting in that it deals with a Jewish community in China. I had no idea there were ever Jews there, apparently it was a popular refuge, as the only place they were actually welcomed with kindness.

Peony is a bondmaid growing up in the home of a prominent Jewish family. I had a hard time grasping what a bondmaid was exactly. She was purchased like a slave, but had a place of honor in the home above paid servants, and had her own room, nice clothes, perfume and jewelry. She was purchased as a companion for the family's only child, a boy named David. As they grew up she came to love him, but could never expect to marry him as she was not Jewish and was a bondmaid. In a Chinese household she might have become his concubine, but the Jews were against such things. So instead she works to arrange David's life in such a way that she could be near him in any capacity, even knowing her love could never be returned.

The Jews in this book face an interesting dilemma. There are few of them left, because so many have intermarried over the years. David's mother is desperate to keep the line pure, and sees the kindness of the Chinese as a new weapon against their way of life. The synagogue is crumbling, the rabbi dying, and no one to replace him.

Overall this was a very interesting book, a sort of portrait of a culture within a culture.

3 comments:

  1. Looks like two great books. I don't order them now. I still have 4 others to read. I really enjoy Anita Shreve as well.

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