Pearl S. Buck emerged into literary stardom in 1931 when she published a book called The Good Earth. That story of family life in a Chinese village won the novelist international acclaim, the Pulitzer and, eventually, a Nobel Prize. Her upbringing in China as the American daughter of missionaries served as inspiration for that novel and many others; by her death in 1973, Buck had written more than 100 books, including 43 novels.
Last December, Buck's son Edgar Walsh — who manages her literary estate — received an email with some unexpected news: A 44th novel by his mother had been discovered in Texas.
"Someone, and I do not know who, took the manuscript from the house in which [Buck] died in Vermont and went away with it," Walsh says. "Whoever that person was wound up in Texas, rented a storage unit and put the manuscript in there. And that's where it was found."
The family had some trouble over the years, he tells NPR's Jacki Lyden, but things have been pretty good lately. His mother's work experienced a resurgence of attention in 2004 when Oprah selected The Good Earth for her book club.
Walsh didn't know Buck had spent her final years writing this novel, titled The Eternal Wonder.
"And I certainly didn't know someone had spirited the manuscript out of the home in which she had lived her last years in Vermont," he says, "and had concealed it from me and the family for 40 years."
Two manuscripts of the novel were found — one typewritten and one written in the author's own handwriting. Fortunately, Walsh says, the estate was able to acquire the manuscripts without too much trouble.
"I contacted an attorney in Philadelphia [named] Peter Hearn," Walsh says. Hearn had helped Walsh with other disputes over Buck's work. "And [I] said, 'We will not give her what she's asking for, but we will pay her a modest sum of money, and we want it returned immediately.' That worked."
Shortly after its return, Walsh read the manuscript and had a "complex reaction."
"It was fascinating, frankly, to read her final novel and to realize that it was, in a sense, a historic event," he says. "I just had a sense of a woman who when she wrote this was 78, 79 years old. She knew she was dying. But she sat down with a pen and wrote out over 300 pages. Just an amazing tour de force."
The novel follows the life of Randolph Colfax, a "genius," Walsh says, "from his birth through his military career to a love affair with an older woman in London, [and] to Paris where he meets a Chinese girl. It is a very personal — fictional — exploration of themes of toleration and humanity that informed Pearl's work."
Walsh says it was easy to make the decision to publish the novel. The Eternal Wonder will be released this October.
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