by Linda C. Wisniewski
Published in the March 2020 newsletter of Story Circle Network, http://www.storycircle.org
On weekday afternoons from March to November, writers converge on a 50-acre farm in rural Pennsylvania to work on their memoirs. Since 2010, I have been lucky enough to be their guide in the very spot where Pulitzer and Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck wrote most of her novels and other works after leaving her childhood home in China in 1935.
Our class meets inside her 1825 barn, now called the Cultural Center, where her family once kept Guernsey cows and hosted Boy Scout, Girl Scout, and 4-H meetings, parties for wounded soldiers during the Second World War and even a temporary kindergarten for the overcrowded local school district. In a large high-ceilinged room that was once a basketball court for her children, my students write at tables with a view of well-tended gardens. Pearl Buck’s portrait hangs larger than life above a stage at one end of the room.
Her legacy lives here, at Pearl S. Buck International, a nonprofit whose mission is intercultural education and humanitarian aid. In this room, I helped compose questions for a Taking Action tour of her stone farmhouse a few yards away. As a volunteer docent, I engage guests in conversation about her human rights work and its relevance today. I think she would be pleased with that, and also to see, 47 years after her death, men and women from their mid-30s to 80s writing at her home. Like my students, she wrote from her own life experience. And like their lives, it wasn’t always pretty.
She wrote The Good Earth in China after almost losing her life in a nationalist uprising. Her daughter had the mental capacity of a preschooler until she died in her 70s. Her Reno divorce from her first husband, John Lossing Buck, and marriage on the same day to her publisher, Richard Walsh, was a scandal in 1935. Walsh died twenty-five years later, after a stroke and seven years of resulting disability that required a private duty nurse in their home. She saw her biracial adopted daughters experience discrimination in the 1950s. Her first novel was rejected by many publishers and even though her writing became extremely popular, it was criticized as simple and moralistic. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, Robert Frost (who was nominated eight times and never won) remarked “If she can get it, anybody can.” William Faulkner wrote to a friend that he would rather not win it (he did) than be in the company of “Mrs. Chinahand Buck.” In later life, her reputation suffered from romantic entanglements that would be tolerated with amusement in aging male celebrities.
She wasn’t perfect but she used her voice to advocate for others. I think she’d be pleased to see people gathered in her renovated barn to write their own struggles. People like Nam, a Korean American business owner, who tells of watching his wife and young children sleep through the night on the long plane flight to America as he wonders if he has done the right thing. And Daphne, a beautiful blond flight attendant who visited Hotel Rwanda and wondered if the young man giving her a tour had suffered through the genocide. People like Lee, who rode a train to Oak Ridge, Tennessee at the start of World War Two to work on the Manhattan Project as a young engineer, not knowing what his top-secret assignment would be. And Karen, who watched her young husband die of AIDS while keeping the cause a secret.
On quiet afternoons in Pearl Buck’s barn, I hear the scratch of my students’ pens on paper and feel the energy of their stories buzzing in the air. I glance at her portrait on the wall and imagine her speaking. “Good job,” she says. “Keep going.”
Linda C. Wisniewski lives with her retired scientist husband and rescue cat in Bucks County, PA. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines both print and online. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published by Pearlsong Press when she was 62 and her debut novel at age 73, Where the Stork Flies, is forthcoming from Sand Hill Review Press. Linda has been a member of SCN since 1999. She blogs at www.lindawis.com.