Edna Ferber was once the most famous female novelist in the United States. A member of the famed Algonquin Table, Ferber wrote several novels that were turned into classic movies, including Showboat, Giant, and Cimarron. Ferber’s So Big won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for literature. I’m not sure why her novels get so little attention these days. This is the first that I have read, and I am probably going to try a few more. I found So Big to be a timely and relevant novel about generational change, parent/child relationships, expectations, beauty, and defining success.
The title So Big refers to the nickname of one of the novel’s characters, taken from the little game we play with babies (how big? So big!). Dirk “Sobig” DeJong is a successful Chicago bond trader, the son of truck farmers from just outside the city. While the novel does eventually take us into Dirk’s path in life, its main focus for the first half is on his mother Selina Peake DeJong. We know she’s a hardworking farm woman and that while she has always adored her son (and playing “so big” with him in his childhood), as an adult,
He wasn’t as big as that. In fact, he never became as big as the wide-stretched arms of her love and imagination would have had him.
Ferber then takes us backward in time to late-19th century Chicago and Selina’s life with her gambling father Simeon Peake. From him Selina learned that life is a grand adventure, the more exciting for not knowing what’s around the next corner. Simeon tells Selina,
“The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living. Remember, no matter what happens, good or bad, it’s just so much” — he used the gambler’s term, unconsciously — “just so much velvet.”
Simeon and Selina make the best of both good and bad times, and when Selina is 19 and alone, she takes an adventure to the Dutch farming community several hours outside Chicago known as High Prairie. Her expectation is that she will spend a short time there teaching and then move on to other places and other adventures. Instead, when she arrives, she is overwhelmed by the beauty of the place.
…always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.
Selina’s great strength is her ability to see beauty in her situation and in the people she meets. She has enormous respect for their hard work, for their ability to feed the people of Chicago who, like Selina until very recently, never gave much thought to where their food came from or the people who produced it. She lives at first with the Klaas Pool family. The Pools work hard every day of the week, every season, and their children — the dark haired and soulful Roelf (age 12) and the two little girls, known as the “screaming pigtails,” — work and go to school. Selina is a bit of an oddity and point of curiosity in High Prairie; she’s small and pretty and talks about cabbages being beautiful. She also ends up marrying the handsome widower Pervus DeJong, who runs an unprofitable farm inherited from his father. Selina pays close attention to the way others farm, reads about farming methods and fertilizer, and has big dreams for improving the land, but Pervus refuses to take her seriously or change anything.
It was the vital and constructive force in her resenting his apathy, his acceptance of things as they were.
Selina’s chance to try her new ideas is born out of tragedy, but hers is a story of deep love, of beauty, and success measured on her own terms. Selina does what she loves and she does it for the one she loves — Dirk. What she wants most is for Dirk to have this same opportunity. She makes sure he goes to school and attends university. She encourages his interests, but in the end, Dirk — while a respected and financially successful man, a “big man,” — seems to have missed something.
Ferber wrote this novel after World War I and before the Great Depression. She wrote during a time of great social, technological, and economic change for the US, and So Big shows the effect of this change on different generations; the parents did the hard work and got dirty so that their children wouldn’t have to, so they would have greater opportunity and advantages. But is there a price that the younger generation pays when it is easier for them to get things? Avoiding the bumps in life’s road might make the ride smoother but it is perhaps less interesting as well. Sometimes we need to be tested to know who we really are. As self-made man Aug Hemple tells Selina,
About mistakes it’s funny. You got to make your own, and not only that, if you try to keep people from making theirs they get mad.
I thoroughly enjoyed Ferber’s writing. Her descriptive passages are gorgeous, like painting with words. Ferber also uses some amazing and unusual vocabulary, (including the unfortunate use of the slur “Jap”). I found myself looking up quite a few words that I’d never heard before (matutinal, wight, dado, farinaceous, burbankian). She also creates some colorful and charming characters. Selina is someone I’d like to be, or at least know. Overall, a satisfying novel that I think is worth reading 90 years after it was first published.