Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review of The Living Reed by Pearl Buck

Name of Book: The Living Reed

Author: Pearl Buck

ISBN: 1-55921-022-2

Publisher: Moyer Bell Limited

Type of book: Korea, 1881-1945?, communism, christianity, Russia, America, multi-generational, love, duties, sacrifice, royalty, Japanese treatment, democracy, misleading

Year it was published: 1963


THE LIVING REED tells the story of a close-knit family who dedicate themselves to the salvation of their homeland, that tiny peninsula hanging like a golden fruit before the longing eyes of surrounding nations. The reader lives with them from the splendid era of Queen Min to the climactic days of the Second World War, and emerges not only with admiration for the Korean people and their rich culture but with the excitement of discovering a little known and fascinating history closely entangled with the history of America itself.

Kim Il-han, an adviser to the throne when we first meet him in 1881, is to become the family patriarch, and the steadfast and passionate love between him and his wife Sunia spins a shining thread that ties the story together. Il-han's father, he himself, his two sons, and the sons of the latter all are engrossed from birth to death in the struggle for Korean independence.

The elder of Il-han's sons, after Japan's seizure of Korea, joins the exiled revolutionaries and becomes the legendary figure known as "The Living Reed." Through his experiences we see a panorama of China and Manchuria in the violent 1920s and 1930s. The younger son marries a Korean Christian and becomes a martyr of Japanese persecution. From the tempestuous liaison of the elder brother with a Russian woman [The woman is Korean, not Russian], and from the bittersweet marriage of the younger, issue the two grandsons of Il-han, who mark the fourth generation. It is upon them that the story turns at its close.

Every major public event, from the assassination plots of the early pages to the landing of American troops at the end, and every public personage from Queen Min to Woodrow Wilson, is authentic. But the sweep of history and the excitement of great events provide only part of the book's power: the reader is drawn equally by the vivid detail of a remarkable people and culture, the course of three love relationships, and the color, warmth, power, conviction, and affinity for her subject that light up the printed page when PEARL BUCK writes about Asia.


I barely get to know the characters, in particular Yul-Chun and it seems a cop out as to why he is the way he is. Even during the third part when we are with him through his journeys, he very rarely reflects back on why he became this way, or the turning points that must have happened during his life. I enjoyed the first part immensely; seeing the love between Il-Han and Sunia and watching with interest how Il-han became very similar to his own father. The second and third parts didn't measure up to the first parts and were on a weaker scale. Also, I did quick calculations, but around the time that World War 2 began, Yul-Chun should have been in 50s or 60s! If he was born somewhere in 1870s, then he already should have been someone over the hill rather than being treated as a middle aged man. It's also interesting to note that in Pearl Buck's novels, women rarely tell about their histories and this was no exception. I am frustrated that Hanya was not who I thought she was. Some things she mentioned in the novel, such as the first printing press being created by Koreans is accurate, at least to what I was told.Yul-Chun's son was also frustrating and I wished I could have gotten to know him better. Some parts about Yul-Chun sounded false to me, like him being in love or appreciating Hanya or even trying to get closer to his own son.


The main theme of the novel is the balance between old and new traditions as well as trying to show to the public about a nation that they don't understand or know too much about it.


There were a number of time jumps and this is from multiple points of view, but the primary characters are Il-Han, Yul-han, and Yul-Chun. Sasha and Liang as well as their great-grandfather aren't given much voice. While it was an interesting novel and one does learn a lot about it, I didn't appreciate the novel pardoning or excusing America's deeds. America never imperial? Umm what about Hawaii or Philippines or perhaps Latin America? What of America settling Texas? That's not imperial? This is also interesting, but if someone works closely for the royal family, shouldn't they have a specific dress or uniform to go with it? Why does Il-Han wear white all the time? Also, I read somewhere that after birth of a child, a Korean woman isn't allowed to take a shower. Is bathing different than taking a shower? And as far as I know, its believed that seaweed soup helps heal if a woman gives birth to a child, not chicken soup.

Author Information:

June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia, The United States

March 06, 1973


Literature ; Fiction, Biographies ; Memoirs, Children's Books

About this author

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces" and the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932 for The Good Earth.


Don't believe in the summary about the older brother being with a Russian woman; false. While the woman does have a Ukrainian name, she is of Korean origin. Trust me when I say that I was fooled by this summary, and thus I feel angry at this deception. The story is entertaining but very long and  over-drawn. The ending is not the ending and it doesn't satisfy but instead asks for a sequel. This also was published in 1963, thus there is no mention of comfort women. (During world war 2, Japan forced a lot of Chinese and Korean women to become comfort, in crass terms, forced sexual workers for the Japanese army.) It is also strange that some parts of it really reminded me of a Korean drama I watched titled Eyes of Dawn (여명의 눈동자). I wasn't satisfied with the ending and felt that a sequel was needed because it was too rushed and there wasn't a good resolution. Also, why does Ms. Buck skip Korean War which should have been an interesting dynamic between Sasha and Liang? (the 4th generation). In an odd way its also kind of like a Korean drama I believe.

2 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)

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