Although prolific, Nobel-Prize-winning-author Pearl S. Buck is best known for her novels about China, this one is focused on the U.S. in the years following the American Civil War. It’s an interesting take on the South, racism, and 19th century industrial development — but felt disjointed, as though it couldn’t quite figure what it was about. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.
Wealthy, Southern brothers Pierce and Tom wind up fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War –Tom for the North, Pierce for the South. When they return to their West Virginia plantation after the war, they begin to discover all the ways life has changed.
Pierce’s wife Lucinda, who has been in charge during the war years, now finds she must again make room for a husband. But more significantly, she is desperate to hang onto the privilege of her accustomed way of life and deeply resentful about the loss of her “slaves”. Then there’s Tom, who, having suffered brutal imprisonment, promptly falls in love with the mulatto servant who nurses him back to health. And so begins a deep family rift.
I won’t disclose more plot details (no spoilers), but as the novel follows these characters through the next couple of generations, readers watch the impact of jarring changes happening in America during the last decades of the 19th century:
• Paid workers, replacing slaves, make farming large plantations more expensive and more difficult.
• Rapid industrialization, especially the expansion of railroads, changes where BIG money was made.
• A long economic depression in the 1870s, with resulting labor unrest and strikes (some of which are blamed on the new theories of Karl Marx) forever alters relations between workers and management.
• And, most interesting to me, just how much did the Civil War change racial attitudes among both white and black citizens.
Through the stories of Tom and Pierce, we watch the unfolding of their different paths. Ultimately, one’s decisions lead him to be more anchored in the agrarian past; the other’s guide him toward a life more in keeping with an increasingly industrialized and more equitable society.
I have no idea why this book is titled THE ANGRY WIFE. That refers to Lucinda, Pierce’s wife. Because it’s much more the story of Pierce himself — part of that generation that lost the Civil War, people who were then forced to reexamine, reevaluate, and, in some cases, redefine big life concepts like success, family, friendship, love, and fulfillment.
As mentioned earlier, my biggest criticism of the book is how disjointed it felt. At the start it felt like it WAS going to center on Lucinda. But then it shifted to more of a Tom and Pierce narrative. And then toward the end, much more about Pierce alone. Nevertheless, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more this turbulent period in American history.
You may be interested in my reviews of other novels by Buck: