1924. Harper Perennial. ebook. 276 pages.
Recommendation from: Jackie of Farm Lane Books
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.”