This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1924 and is as far from all the European mysteries I have been reading as it could be. So Big is the nickname given Dirk DeJeong when he was a baby. “How big is baby?” “S-o-o-o-o-o Big”. If the book had just been about him, I would have quietly closed the cover and left the book to molder. Thankfully a fair amount of it is about his mother, Selina Peake, the daughter of a gambler and ne’er-do-well. Simeon Peake may not have been a model father but he did instill in his daughter a love of beauty and adventure. After seeing a play, Selina remarks, “The thing I like about plays and books is that anything can happen. Anything! You never know.” To which he replies,
“No different from life. You’ve no idea the things that happen to you if you just relax and take them as they come. I want you to see all kinds, I want you to realize that this whole thing is just a grand adventure; a fine show. The trick is to play in it and look at it at the same time.”
After her father dies in an unfortunate incident while they are living in Chicago, she takes what little he has left her and gets an education, eventually becoming a teacher. The young woman heads out to take her post as schoolmistress in a small Dutch farming community called High Prairie.
The prairie land just outside Chicago had not then been made a terrifying and epic thing of slag-heaps, smoke-stacks, and blast furnaces like a Pennell drawing. To-day it stretched away and away in the last rays of the late autumn sunlight over which the lake mist was beginning to creep like chiffon covering gold. Mile after mile of cabbage fields, jade-green against the earth.
See, with prose like that, how could you not fall in love with this book? Unfortunately once the book shifts to Dirk again in earnest, I just couldn’t get past what an unpleasant and callow young man he was. After all the spark and beauty Selina created and saw in her life, even in the back-breaking life of a farm woman, Dirk is a vexing character. I felt bad that Selina’s son turned out so poorly and wished that there had been more about her son-in-spirit, Roelf Pool. When Roelf was a student of hers, she encouraged his artistic side in the face of the grim realities of farm families and he was able to escape High Prairie to become a well-respected sculptor. Selena had hoped for such a life of beauty and artistic endeavor for “Sobig” but he just turned out to be another dissolute money grabber.
In the end, I was glad to have read this book, discovering another quintessentially American writer. I have seen that she is sometimes compared to Booth Tarkington, so now I’ve got to dig out that copy of The Magnificent Ambersons my niece sent me.