The Monday Book: THE EXILE by Pearl Buck

I picked up a set of Buck novels at a yard sale some time before the pandemic. And there they sat, until last month when I took The Exile to a conference with me.

The Exile is what I would call a character study. It is about Carie, a missionary in China who was a child during the American Civil War, and lives through both the Boxer Rebellion and the Chinese famine of the early 1900s. The story is told from someone observing Carie, occasionally slipping into first person and saying “I remember,” but usually a distant third person kind of narration. Not much dialogue appears in the book.

In fact, some 30 pages in I was tempted to set it aside, but something about the well-drawn Carie, mother to many babies only half of whom survive, a practical Christian less interested in prayer than feeding people, married to a man whose passion is for Christ—but then there are all those babies….

The story is told so subtly, how she winds up in predicament after predicament, some intense, some silly, a couple potentially lethal. As the young narrator describes how Carie faces down some threats, and flees from others, she continually builds up the practical wisdom and the sense of helplessness a woman of limited means and large heart would feel as she watched those around her starve.

Carie’s life with her husband Andrew is often glossed over, except that Andrew is the praying partner, and Carie feels a sense of ineptitude in her own relationship with God, when she sees the surety of Andrew’s. That said, it’s not a small part of Buck’s narrator’s voice that Carie is an amazing example of real compassion. At first I thought this was a story that told us about Carie rather than showed her character through dialogue and situations. But the more I read, the more I realized the subtle power of how Buck gets inside a female mind, displaying the power and prudence found there in understated ways.

The title is also a subtle pun, referring both to Carie’s life outside her beloved America, and her disquiet with traditional ways of expressing Christian devotion. She is an exile in many ways.

I’m not sure this novel would make a hit parade in modern times, but in 1936 it won the Nobel Prize. Modern readers will find flinch-worthy moments in relationships and assumptions between cultures.

In her day Buck was one of West Virginia’s most celebrated writers, and what is perhaps her best known work This Good Earth continues to be read in Classics classes. The Exile is quieter, more subtle, and yet somehow even more compelling. I never could resist a novel where character drives plot, and Carie is one of the most finely drawn, pencil-and-charcoal, light-and-shade characters Buck ever created. Highly recommended.

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