It was damp, rainy and dreary last Saturday, but that didn’t dampen the spirit of Pearl S. Buck when she hosted guests at the Sydenstricker cabin in Hillsboro, next to her birthplace, which she lovingly referred to as “My Mother’s House.”
Of course, it wasn’t the real Pearl S. Buck, it was instead History Alive! actress Missy McCollam, who shared a history of Buck’s life, from her birth in Hillsboro to her childhood in China and her career as an award winning author.
The vigor and tenacity of Pearl Buck was present as McCollam passionately recalled how Pearl’s missionary parents – Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker – returned to Pocahontas County from China for a furlough, leading to her birth in Hillsboro.
The Sydenstricker family had suffered great losses while in China before Pearl was born. Three of the Sydenstricker’s four children were struck down by a fever and a doctor warned Absalom that Caroline was on the brink of a breakdown.
“The doctor warned my father, he said, ‘your wife is about to become unhinged,’” McCollam said. “And so, he escorted her back to Pocahontas County, West Virginia, for their first furlough in ten years. She arrived in Pocahontas County after a decade in China, with only one of her four children to share with her father, and she was sad, and she was broken.
“Eighteen months later, I was born, to comfort her,” she continued. “Which is why I was christened Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker. By the time I was three months old, my father was anxious to get back to China and continue his missionary work.”
Pearl was raised in China and first learned to speak Chinese which she found easier than learning English. Pearl was an adventurous child and was not sheltered from the rough lives led by the villagers of China. She saw herself as one of them.
“At that point, I didn’t know that I was white. I was a regular at the village funerals and meetings, and I was very accustomed to hearing the local women talk openly about their problems and lives. So it was my missionary parents who needed protection from reality. Not me. Not at all.”
It wasn’t until her blonde hair grew too long to tuck into a hat that Pearl realized the she was different. She fought against her nanny, Wang Amah, who tried to shove her long locks into the hat.
“‘Why do I have to wear this?’ I would say to her and she would calmly say, ‘because black is the only color for little girls’ hair and eyes and your hair does not look real, so wear the hat.’”
It was Wang Amah who first exposed Pearl to books and stories. She read and told stories to the young girl, who quickly absorbed them. By the time she was five, she had them memorized. Wang Amah’s stories sparked Pearl’s passion for reading and writing, as well as a passion for Chinese culture.
While Wang Amah taught her about China, Pearl’s mother taught her about Pocahontas County.
“She told me of her home in the hills. She described it as an Eden-like place where there were large fields of green grass, apples lying under trees and where berries grew on bushes, ready to eat immediately. She explained to me that they didn’t have walls around their yards and the water in the streams was so clean that you could drink it without being boiled.
“So, in my mind, what I thought was, America is a place untouched by disease, starvation, corruption, injustice and want,” she continued. “For me the imagination of America was perfect.”
Pearl’s mother taught her, as well as a tutor and Wang Amah. She learned about Buddhism, Confucius and Christianity. As she grew, so did her hunger for reading. She devoured Shakespeare and Charles Dickens on an annual basis.
“Reading and writing for me was an escape where I could go into the attic and escape the real world and live in a world of interesting characters and a world of fantasy and dreams. In 1910, my parents sent me to America to study at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
“It was immediately evident that I did not fit in there,” she continued. “Immediately.”
Pearl altered her Chinese clothing on her brother’s sewing machine and was able to fit in with her classmates. She graduated head of her class and planned to remain in America, until she received word that her mother was not well. She returned to China to be by her side.
In 1915, she met John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist, and they were married in 1917. Three years later, Pearl gave birth to her only biological child, Carol. The young girl had a strong body, but suffered by what was later diagnosed as Phenylketonuria (PKU). While her body would grow, she forever had the mind of a toddler.
While it was a difficult decision to make, Pearl and Lossing sent Carol to a home in New Jersey that took care of children with disorders such as Carol’s.
The couple adopted a child and moved back to China.
“This time I grieved through my writing,” Pearl would say. “It was at this time that I gathered all the information that I put in The Good Earth. Lossing and I taught at the University of Nanking and I began to write articles.”
In 1930, the John Day Company published her first novel, East Wind, West Wind. Pearl was finally a published author and she had become self-sufficient.
By 1931, her life changed in two big ways – her second novel, The Good Earth, was published, and she met Richard Walsh, her publisher. Walsh would later become her husband, on the same day she divorced Buck.
“I wrote The Good Earth in order to create a bridge between east and west,” she said. “In order to explain to people the intricacies of Chinese culture and in order to create a greater human experience. The Good Earth became a best selling novel in 1931, 32 and 33.
“In 32, I was awarded – the first woman ever – the Pulitzer Prize for literature,” she continued. “It was amazing. I wrote many novels including The Exile, which is about my mother, and The Fighting Angel, about my father. In 1938, I was the very first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.”
Pearl returned to America to be closer to her husband and daughter, Carol. She bought a farm, The Green Hills, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Pearl and Richard went on to adopt six more children.
Pearl became an advocate for mentally challenged children, explaining to their parents that they should not hide the children and should, instead, let them live their lives and enjoy their childhood.
Pearl also created The Welcome House, which helped nearly 5,000 Asian and Amerasian children to be adopted.
Following the presentation, McCollam was joined by Pearl S. Buck Birthplace docent Phyllis Lubin-Tyler, who is an expert in all things Pearl S. Buck. The two answered questions from the crowd and invited those in attendance to take a tour of the birthplace and to take home some Concord grapes gathered from the vines that entangled in the front porch trellis at the home.
The History Alive! Pearl S. Buck presentation was a Pocahontas County Bicentennial event.