- Pearl S. Buck, It's Not You, It's Me
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[End Page 114]
Pearl, I'm sorry.
I'm not feeling it anymore. I tried. For years, I tried. You know I did.
I served on the board of your Birthplace in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. I read the biographies. I wrote grants and hired volunteers and emailed leaders across the state and researched themed tours for your museum. I taught sessions inspired by your work at writing conferences. I wrote and rewrote the material I'd gathered about you, trying to find the right angle into your complicated and fascinating life, each attempt longer than the last until I was sure I was working on a book. The hours I spent—I couldn't begin to count them. I wouldn't want to.
I can't do it anymore.
It's not that I don't admire you. I do.
Forget what your detractors said. Forget that almost everyone has forgotten about you.
You were a household name when I was born in 1972. All those bestsellers, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the tireless humanitarian work, the Civil Rights campaigning. Nothing captures how famous you were better than the black-and-white photograph taken at a 1962 White House dinner honoring American Nobel laureates, the one where you are sitting front-and-center, talking with John F. Kennedy, while a smiling Jackie leans into a conversation with Robert Frost. Based on your expression, I bet you weren't making small talk with the president, but discussing foreign policy. That would be just like you.
By the time I reached high school, your reputation was fading. I knew your name, but was never assigned to read anything you'd written. People ten years younger than me often haven't heard of you at all.
Pearl, the more I learn about your life, the more I wonder if we've done ourselves a disservice by forgetting you. I admire you to no end.
Still, the time has come. I have to try to quit you. For both our sakes.
My husband and I, both Ohio-born, moved to West Virginia in 2000. He was taking a job in a struggling timber town called Richwood, in Nicholas County. Thirty miles east of Richwood is Hillsboro, the farming village in Pocahontas County where you were born. Your West Virginia town and mine are like bookends to the southern part of the Monongahela National Forest. Connecting them is one of the prettiest roads I've ever driven, a long scarf of graceful curves that takes as its inspiration the meanderings of the North Fork of the Cherry River. Heading east, the road winds through the woods for twenty miles, passing turnoffs to trails and waterfalls and a lake before wrapping up one side of Kennison Mountain and back down the other to deliver us into Little Levels, the limestone valley of your ancestors. With its meadows and rolling farmland, rimmed in the [End Page 115] distance by the foothills of the Alleghenies, this place is as achingly beautiful now as it must have been more than one hundred years ago, when you were a child.
The first time I spot the shield-shaped sign—Welcome to the Birthplace of Pearl S. Buck—my husband and I are exploring our new state. I point and say, "Hey, that's cool."
"I know." He's driven past before, for work. "I've been meaning to tell you about it."
The house probably looks a bit shabbier than when you last saw it, but it's still handsome. It's Dutch-inspired, right? An attempt by your great-grandfather to create for his homesick wife the kind of home they'd left behind in pursuit of religious freedom? The square design gives the house an air of being sure of itself without being full of itself. My favorite feature is the white-columned portico holding up the second-story porch with its sweet white-picket railing, where you remembered spending afternoons as a nine-year-old, reading Charles Dickens and...