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A Lost And Found 'Wonder': Pearl S. Buck's Final Novel

May 25, 2013
Originally published on May 25, 2013 6:15 pm

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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The writer 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, Pearl Buck had written around 100 books.

We can now add yet another to that list. This week, her estate announced the discovery of a new never-published manuscript called "The Eternal Wonder." And as her son Edgar Walsh tells it, the story of the novel's recovery is a wonder itself.

EDGAR WALSH: Someone - and I do not know who - took the manuscript from the house in which she died in Vermont and went away with it. 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.

JACKI LYDEN, HOST: "The Eternal Wonder" will be published this fall. Edgar Walsh, who manages his mother's literary estate, says he had a complex reaction to the news.

WALSH: I had not known that my mother had written this in the last year or two of her life. And I certainly did not know that someone had spirited the manuscript out of a home in which she lived her last years in Vermont and had concealed it from me and the family for 40 years.

I was notified in December of last year that a woman in Texas who has a business buying storage units that have not paid their rent and she had purchased a unit in Fort Worth and discovered this manuscript, which was in a holographic form as a written manuscript, of course. And the woman in Texas wanted to sell it.

HOST: Sell it to you?

WALSH: To whomever. Initially, she wanted to put the manuscript on eBay and try to sell it there. I contacted an attorney in Philadelphia, Peter Hearn, and said we will not give her what she's asking for, but we will pay her a modest sum of money, and we wanted it returned immediately. That worked. I read the manuscript, and I said, you know, I want to get this published.

HOST: What a relief. You must have been so eager to read your mother's words so many years after her death. What was that like?

WALSH: It was fascinating, frankly, to read her final novel and to realize that it was, in a sense, an historic event. But reading this book just took me back to my many discussions with her about her work. And I just had a sense of awe that a woman, who, when she wrote this, was 78, 79 years old. And she knew she was dying. She was ill with cancer and she knew that she would be ending her life soon. But she sat down and, with a pen, wrote out over 300 pages.

Just an amazing tour de force - but not surprising, given her production. You know, between age 40 and her death in 1973, she produced - and I'm going to give you a few numbers here - 43 novels, about 30 nonfiction books, 242 short stories, 37 children's books, 18 film and TV scripts, 500 articles and essays and thousands of letters.

HOST: That's really almost incomprehensible. I'm sure she wrote every single day.

WALSH: Yeah. You know, people often ask me: Have you read everything your mother wrote? No.

HOST: No?

(LAUGHTER)

WALSH: I have a few other things to do in my life.

HOST: I should think. Tell us a little bit about the story of this novel. What's it about?

WALSH: The novel follows the life of a brilliant young man, a genius, from his birth to his military career to a love affair with an older woman in London to Paris, where he meets a Chinese girl. And it is a very personal, fictional explanation of themes, of toleration and humanity that informed Pearl's work.

HOST: That's Edgar Walsh. He's the son of the writer Pearl S. Buck and the manager of her literary estate. He spoke to us from New York City. Mr. Walsh, thank you so very much for being with us today.

WALSH: Well, thank you. I appreciate your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.