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Pearl Buck and the Tsunami

01/12/05 12:00AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) Commentator Peter Gilbert tells us how Vermont author Pearl Buck made great children's literature out of a Japanese tsunami she witnessed.


(GILBERT) Long before Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl Buck settled in Danby, Vermont, civil war in her beloved China forced her to flee Nanking for Japan. It was there, in 1927, that she witnessed a tidal wave sweep away an ancient village and leave only a barren beach.

Pearl Buck wrote her children's book The Big Wave because, she said, during World War II, she saw that many children "were not used to the idea of death. They thought that death comes only to old people. But during the war they learned that death comes also to the young, if we allow it." And so she wrote a story about how two boys, a fisherman's son and a farmer's son, "learned to live in the presence of death, as indeed we all do, young and old." She wanted to "help other children not be afraid of death, because life is stronger than death. Life goes on and on, whatever happens." She wanted them to understand that it's through facing life and its dangers that one learns not only to be brave, but also to appreciate life's joys.

I recommend The Big Wave, especially if your household includes older elementary school students or middle-schoolers. It tells of Jiya, a fisherman's son, who loses his family to a tsunami. Buck writes that he watched as a "silver-green band of bright sky appeared like a low dawn above the sea. [The big wave] rushed toward the shore, green and solid, frothing into white at its edges. It rose, higher and higher, lifting up hands and claws...and before Jiya could scream again it reached the village and covered it fathoms deep in swirling wild water, green laced with fierce white foam.

"The wave ran up the mountainside... All who were still climbing the path were swept away - black, tossing scraps in the wicked waters...

"Then with a great sucking sigh, the wave swept back again, ebbing into the ocean, dragging everything with it, trees and stones and houses..."

Orphaned, Jiya lives with his friend's farming family. And slowly, ever so slowly, his sobbing and sleeping subside, and he becomes ready to live again - because, as the farmer says, "Life is stronger than death."

Time passes, and Jiya, being a fisherman's son, is drawn back to the sea - called to return to the beach where his village and his family's house once stood. He marries his friend's younger sister and builds a simple house on the beach. But, they ask, what if the big wave comes again? And he shows them: unlike the other new houses on the site of the demolished town, his house has a window from which he can look right out to the ocean. And he is not afraid.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities.
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