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Moving On … What I’m Reading Now

February 8, 2018

Enough about last year’s books. The book I’m reading now is The Townsman by John Sedges. Don’t recognize the name? What if I said Pearl S. Buck? I’m pretty sure you recognize that name. Some of you may be surprised to hear that the two are one and the same. John Sedges is the name Ms. Buck used when she first began writing stories set in America.

In her foreword to American Triptych, a volume containing three books attributed to John Sedges, Ms. Buck explains that after spending time in America, she wanted to write stories set in this country, but felt she had been cast in a mold and known as someone who wrote only about China. In order to break out of that mold, she chose a pseudonym, picking a masculine name because, in her words “men have fewer handicaps in our society than women have, in writing as well as in other professions.” (My Sisters in Crime friends will nod when they read that.)

About the book: Up to now, I’d read only books by Pearl Buck that were set, if not in China, at least in an Asian country, so I wasn’t sure what to expect – except, of course, a good story, one with strong characters. She did not disappoint. Her characters are strong individuals and are recognizably human. Nor did the change of setting limit her descriptive power. The Townsman is set in Kansas, which in the minds of most Americans, is about as far from China as you can get.

Her impression of that setting:

“The sky was infinitely more important here than the earth. For the earth was unchanging. Nothing stopped the eye for mile upon mile of even green grass. The handful of houses that made a town were meaningless and passing. The sky was the pageant. The eye went to it again and again. Stars were of enormous size and shining color.”

willa cather - prairie

I grew up in a landscape filled with trees and will never forget the first time I drove across the vast, flat land in the middle of the country.  I love “The sky was the pageant.” So true. I remember feeling as if I were seeing the sky for the first time. Imagine the impression of a young Englishman, unwillingly transplanted from his home overlooking the Irish Sea, to this seemingly endless, mostly unsettled, land – or of his proper British mother, who was terrified savages would attack them and kill her children.

I won’t go into a lot of detail and spoil the plot for you, but will tell you that I found the story particularly interesting because this young man did not become a cowboy or move further west in search of gold or other adventure. Instead, he stayed put and helped to build a thriving community. When he discovered so few of the children could read or write, he founded a school, one that included girls, Native Americans, and children of recently freed slaves. It may not sound like much to us, but at that time, in that place, it was revolutionary. In some cases, the inclusion of girls was against the wishes of their fathers who were afraid educating their daughters would give them ideas and upset the balance of family life. (I’m imaging another nod here from my Sisters in Crime.)

I’m about half-way through the book now and am enjoying it immensely. I’m pleased that wherever Pearl S. Buck set her stories, she was consistent in her belief in the necessity of education and the importance of diversity.

In some ways, this story reminds me of another woman who wrote about life on the great prairie – Willa Cather. Both are well worth remembering and reading.

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