So Big by Edna Ferber

So Big Edna Ferber

1924. Harper Perennial. ebook. 276 pages.

Recommendation from: Jackie of Farm Lane Books

*Read this book for the Classics Club Spin along with Brona’s Books (her review here)

In a nutshell:

In her childhood, Selina Peake traveled around the country with her gambler father. The father and daughter settle in Chicago for her to attend a good private school. But as she is just on the brink of adulthood, he dies, and she is left to fend for herself.

Selina takes on a teaching position among Dutch farmers not far from Chicago. She is soon married to a good-looking but unimaginative farmer and they have a son, Dirk. The story follows Selina and Dirk as they each pursue their own ideas of a good life.


So Big is a pretty straightforward but satisfying tale. Selina’s character arc could be framed as a bootstrap rags-to-riches story, but it’s not so fairytale that it doesn’t acknowledge that her intelligence and work ethic are boosted by luck and connections. Selina is easy to root for as she bravely takes on new scenes and new roles that aren’t entirely approved by society.

The title of the book references Dirk’s childhood nickname, which itself is taken from an inside joke between him and his mother. (I think I read that Edna Ferber didn’t quite care for this title but couldn’t think of anything better before it was published. It’s not a great title.)

Much of Selina’s efforts are aimed at giving her son Dirk a better life, despite one older character warning her not to settle her dreams overmuch on her son, as children will go and do their own thing. Indeed, Dirk ends up being rather a coward. I enjoyed his sections mainly for Ferber’s delightful skewering of the young, moneyed crowd that Dirk runs with during his university years and later. I was especially pleased when Dirk’s would-be manic-pixie dream girl (1920’s style) decidedly prefers the company of Dirk’s mother Selina.

Despite its Pulitzer Prize, So Big is not very well known now, nor is it even the most famous of Ferber’s works. It’s a likable, well-written book but not transcendent. So Big does have a very good sense of place, so anyone who is familiar with Chicago and its environs should get an extra kick out of it.

I would definitely pick up another Edna Ferber novel in the future.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Adventures in Reading – “Edna Ferber does well in capturing the hard lives of the farmers without either idealizing their struggle nor demeaning their lives.”

Farm Lane Books – “Selina was an amazing character and I fell in love with her.”

Gapers Block (reviewer Eden Robins) – “Some of her sentences were so beautiful I wished I had never read them, just so I could read them again for the first time.”


Classics Club


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8 responses to “So Big by Edna Ferber

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed So Big too (& you’re right it’s not a great title).

    I found the generational differences really interesting. Having two older teens in our house, there are lots of chats about what happened in “our day”. Even though Mr Books and I became adults in the greed-is-good 80’s we still shake our head at the level of consumer desire and negligence we see in many of the friends of our kids – the mantra we hear from them is “just buy a new one” – it’s the solution for everything it seems!

    I enjoyed seeing that generational differences have been an issue for every generation in every period of history. Every group of kids coming through goes through a phase where they believe that they know everything and are discovering stuff about life that is unique and special to them. But one day they become the parents and they watch their kids reject their way of life, the things they’ve learnt about life as the new generation discovers stuff about life that is unique and special to them!!

    As you can see, it really did fascinate me.

    I have now ordered Cimarron through work. I’d like to read more Ferber too šŸ™‚

    • Thanks for your comment! Yes, there was a lot that was recognizable in Dirk’s divergence from Selina’s worldview. I have One Basket on my Kindle by her.

  2. piningforthewest

    I’ve been meaning to get around to this one for ages. I really enjoyed Show Boat, Ice Palace and even Roast Beef,Medium which I got from Project Gutenberg.

  3. Karen K.

    I would really like to read something by Edna Ferber since she’s from Texas and I feel like I should read a local author — and I used to live in Chicago! I always thought the title referred to Texas (but then everything’s bigger in Texas, right?) Great review!

    • Karen K.

      I just looked on Wikipedia and she isn’t from Texas at all! She’s from Michigan — I have no idea how I made that mistake. Maybe because Giant is set in Texas?

  4. In addition to my Classics Club Spins and attempts to read through my Classics list and I am also embarking on a mini challenge to read about 11 of the most recent and a few past Pulitzer Prize winners. This book didn’t even make it onto the radar. So far every Pulitzer I have ever read has been SO good. I shold take a look at this one. I also read an old Pulitzer for my SPIN, The Yearling. I would be honored if you would take a look at my review. Thank you. The Yearling

  5. Pingback: Joining the Classics Club | A Good Stopping Point

  6. Pingback: Dubliners by James Joyce

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