The story is set in China where a recent flood has caused mass relocation and uprooting of a complete population of peasants from their lands and home. In the fallout of such catastrophe, they are forced to trudge forlorn towards the alien contours of the capital city and its very different life.
They are forced to take refuge in an unknown environment to have any chance of survival, to get some food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads.
The city and its people are both apathetic and enraged at what seems to them an unwanted inconvenience. The refugees have stretched their supplies, resources and even avenues of unskilled unemployment.
The unwelcome strangers are flooding the extramural camps and desperate for food and work. The circumstances have led to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and tension. The refugees, for the most part, are so punch-drunk with grief and shock that most of them do not take notice of the shiny and glitzy toys offered by the city. They are blinded with their pain of losing their homes and the only life they had ever known.
They are well groomed and immaculately dressed. They all have a blanket on their heads and are carrying iron cauldrons. Even though their faces narrate a struggle with poverty and starvation, they are not looking for or seeking any aid. They seemed to be enveloped in a stupor of grief-stricken numbness.
The story now focuses of one particular individual, an old and feeble man. He seems too old and grey to work or even haul the weight of his belongings. He is slower than the rest of the group and is struggling to keep up with them. Tired and seemingly broken, he drops to his honchos near a food vendor who is selling noodle.
Seeing his plight, an unassuming man walks up to him and enquires about his condition. Even though this stranger is poor himself, he is rich with his kindness and gives the old man two coins- one silver and one copper.
The old man stirs in defiance to accept the alms. It seems to have pricked I self-esteem and he claims that he does not intend to beg for help. He explicated that his people have become starved and homeless as their lands suffered from massive floods on account of river inundation. The people, desperate and anxious, used up their seeds as means for satisfying their hunger pangs. He advised his people to think about the future and keep the seeds for the planting the next harvest. However, the young and inexperienced ones were too short sighted to acknowledge such sage advice.
The generous man leaves a bit miffed and the old man decided to use the copper penny to buy some noodles from the food vendor. The old man takes the small bowl of noodles and draws it near his basket covered with a blanket. When he uncovers it, the vendor sees a gaunt infant. It was the old man’s grandson, his only surviving family after his son and daughter in laws were taken by the flood. After the boy finishes off the noodles, the old man cleans up the few pieces stuck to the rim of the bowl to feed himself.
The vendor is puzzled and asks him the reason for not spending the more valuable silver coin for more food. He does not comprehend that why would the old man save money when he can buy his own survival, even it be for few more days.
The old man turns to the vendor and gives a reply that adds more creases to the vendor’s brow. He says that the silver coin is for buying new seeds. The vendor seems frustrated and says that he would have given him a bowl for free but instead, to see a man with a silver coin and not use it, confused him.
The old man claims that the vendor cannot understand the value of seed like a farmer does. There will be more setbacks and problems in the future. His grandson’s survival and future depended on flourishing fields and plentiful harvest and not on few bowls of noodles. Bequeathing his grandson a secure future depended on the seed that could be bought with the silver coin. The fact that the old man might not survive to see it, was a sacrifice he had already made peace with.
He then got up and continued his long and arduous walk forward.
Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer winner, Pearl S. Buck, weaves this tale overcoming tragedy and readjusting to changed realities in wake o such occurrence. The perpetual motion that is life and its oscillation between the extremes of abundance and poverty, the novel lays bare the human virtues of courage and endurance as well follies of apathy and self-interest. The old man reminds us that no matter how tough things may seem, the only way to go is forward.