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Last updated: Sat. Jan. 04, 2014 - 07:27 am EDT

A COLUMN BY NANCY CARLSON DODD

Revisiting the classics: 'The Good Earth,' "Red Badge of Courage,' 'Last of the Breed'

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Now that I have time to read, I have decided to revisit some of the classics I was required to read in high school to see if they were really as great as everyone claimed they were, or if I was really old enough to appreciate them. Thus far, my journey has been rewarding, affirming, and totally pleasant.

‘The Good Earth,’ by Pearl Buck

I had read Pearl Buck's “The Good Earth” in my freshman year and realize now that I was nowhere mature enough to appreciate this masterpiece. This was Buck's second novel and topped the best seller list for two years. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, was made into a film in 1937, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. At that time, no American woman had ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature before. If you visit this book again, you will agree that it deserved every accolade it was and still is given.

Pearl was born to two American missionaries to China while they were home on leave. Months after her birth, they returned to China, where Pearl was to live for a good portion of her life. “The Good Earth” tells the story of Wang Lung, a simple farmer during pre-revolutionary China who rises from poverty and obscurity to riches and power. It is so appropriate to read this book at this time, given the challenges that China is presenting to us now. It reminds us of the long journey these Easterners have been on and how immensely different their heritage and struggle have been from ours.

Buck's writing is impeccably marvelous. I read many paragraphs twice, just to drink in their fullness. The soil (the good earth) meant so many things to Wang Lung, and we in America often overlook its intrinsic value. The land meant security, status, and healing to this farmer as reflected in this paragraph from the book:

“As he had been healed of his sickness of heart when he came from the southern city and comforted by the bitterness he had endured there, so now again Wang Lung was healed of his sickness of love by the good dark earth of his fields and he felt the moist soil on his feet and he smelled the earthy fragrance rising up out of the furrow he turned for the wheat.”

It is a heartbreaking, exhilarating, and absolutely fascinating journey that the reader takes with Wang and his arranged, homely bride O-Lan. This novel is well worth the price of a thousand library cards.

‘The Red Badge of Courage,’ by Stephen Crane

The next book I re-visited was “The Red Badge of Courage.” Why in the world would anyone my age ever read this book again? I'm sure it has long ago gone by the wayside of high school reading. In innocence and ignorance, I picked up this book and found myself knee deep in some of the most picturesque writing I have every waded into. I also found myself entrenched in a novel which speaks loudly to us of the situation in Afghanistan and the horrors of 9/11.

This novel was penned in 1895 by New Jersey- born Stephen Crane who was the last of his parents' 14 children. Crane died when he was only 30, so he does not leave behind a wealth of writing, but what writing there is filled with a wealth of beauty. In a nutshell, “The Red Badge of Courage” is the simple tale of a young lad who bravely marches off to join the Union forces during the Civil War.

It is not a complicated story, but it draws such a vivid picture of the brutal, hand to hand, eye to eye, primitive combat involved that one cannot help make a comparison between Henry Fleming, the hero of the book, and young men whom we send off to war with their modern weapons. They are, with their modern missiles and weapons, in their inner being, the same as the young men who waded barefoot, armed only with muskets and knives, into the smoke of the civil war.

What surprised me most was the truly elegant way Crane captures thoughts and actions.

I constantly underlined interesting sentences such as “He lifted himself upon his toes and looked in the direction of the fight. A yellow fog lay wallowing on the treetops.”

Then again, while in battle, “He caught changing views of the ground covered with men who were all running like pursued imps, and yelling. To the youth, it was an onslaught of redoubtable dragons. He became like the man who lost his legs at the approach of the red and green monster. He seemed to shut his eyes and wait to be gobbled.” As he viewed the wounded around him, “He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.” Henry eventually does become a hero … to himself and to others. One critic has said of the book that in it, “unfounded beliefs of boys make way for the quietly assured bedrock convictions of men.”

‘Last of the Breed,’ by Louis L’Amour

The third book I wandered into is not usually considered a “classic” in the true sense of the word, but to me it was written by a “classic” writer of Westerns. It was “Last of the Breed” by Louis L'Amour, President Reagan's favorite author. Reagan, who “wrangled” on his own ranch, was taken by the novels that L'Amour wrote about the west before and during its settlement. However, this novel is not about the West. Taking place during the Cold War with Russia, when the Berlin Wall was very much a part of the topography of life, this fiction is about one Maj. Joseph Makatozi who is a top notch test pilot for the American Air Force.

Known as Joe Mack, this major was purposefully brought down by the Russians while testing the newest Air Force plane, and the book begins as he is about to be interrogated by the unpleasant protagonist Col. Arkady Zamatev of the Russian Army to find out about the sophisticated plane Mack had been testing.

Knowing what torture he is facing, Mack quickly escapes. Although escaping was relatively easy, staying alive and making his way back to the United States is not.

He had been taken prisoner in Siberia and faces this huge, barren, frozen countryside to cross on foot. Surviving Siberia, we discover, might be plausible because Joe is not only a decathlon athlete, but also part Sioux and part Cheyenne. Mack had grown up in Idaho and had roamed the hills and forests with his father and grandfather.

As the novel begins, this college educated American Indian is now facing a walk home, Siberia, Taiga (hundreds of miles of the finest stands of timber on earth), the Bering Sea and Alaska. Herein lies a fascinating, page-turner.

Mack is hunted by soldiers in the Russian army, led by the vengeful and embarrassed Zametev.

Well, now that I have time to read, it is great fun to re-discover the classics. My wish for you is that you might dip your toes into a classic also and discover that high school certainly put us on the right track.


Nancy Carlson Dodd is a resident of Fort Wayne.


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