Nation mourns death of 41st president, recalls his life of public service
The holiday season is a time of love and peace. A celebration of faith and tradition with family and friends. It’s a period of reflection, renewal, joy, and generosity.
Or, at least, it’s supposed to be.
Regrettably, the pressures of the commercialization and material expectations of this special season often make peace seem more like a dream than a reality for many people and often long before December even rolls around.
We don’t know any reservations with which Jim may have grappled, but it isn’t unreasonable to assume that he also felt twinges of reluctance to part with something so high in monetary and sentimental value as his gold watch. Regardless, his action demonstrates that his love for his wife enabled him to give up a dear possession.
How do we serve those we love? Are we unselfish in giving of time and sharing our blessings, material or otherwise? Or do we like those people only because of how they can benefit us?
3) The most valuable gifts aren’t necessarily material goods. As you may have suspected by now if you’re unfamiliar with the tale, Jim and Della each selected an item for the other to complement his or her prized possession. Della bought an elegant gold chain for Jim’s watch, and Jim bought a lovely set of hair combs for which Della had wished. Materially speaking, their well-intentioned generosity was in vain since neither could use the gift. However, neither one is vexed for long.
Jim has a “peculiar expression” when he first sees his wife’s shorn locks. Furthermore, he must comfort Della, who is initially distressed when she unwraps her combs, but she soon smiles agreeably and remarks how fast her hair grows. When Jim sees his watch chain, he also smiles and suggests storing away their gifts temporarily. Della then prepares their supper.
As thoughtful as the material items were meant to be, Della and Jim’s sacrifice for each other was the gift of greater value.
O. Henry concludes his story by describing Jim and Della as “the magi,” saying that of all wise men this young couple is the wisest because of their self-sacrifice for each other.
We have been taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that we also receive when we give to others. However, we sometimes forget that the hidden ingredient behind the truth of these words is love. It is selfless love that animates sacrifice and makes it sweet and that empowers the act of giving to be something other than a mechanical offering.
O. Henry reminds us of this lesson through the fictional characters of Jim and Della.
The gift of self-sacrifice might entail giving up material goods like the Dillinghams did. Yet self-sacrifice could also mean we give up previously-made plans to take care of a sick loved one or to call a friend going through a hard time.
Self-giving could also come in the form of devoting time, energy, and resources to create something homemade (instead of store-bought) like a hand-knitted scarf, a home-cooked meal or a photo album of old memories accompanied by hand-written notes.
What better time than the holidays to re-ignite a more personal and selfless type of love in our attitude to gift-giving and in our interactions with loved ones and in our communities? We may find that our disquieting holiday stress melts into the joy and goodwill that this season is meant to celebrate.
As we approach the 17th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, it is quite stunning to consider how the repercussions of that tragic day are still being felt nearly two decades later.
Courageous first responders, who selflessly ran to Ground Zero to save others, have been and are continuing to fall ill and die because of the toxic air they inhaled that fateful day.
As a result of those appalling attacks, a galvanized and freedom-living America became engaged in its longest war. An entire generation has grown up not knowing what the world was like before 9/11, what it was like for America not to be at war.
Some of those who are fighting this on-going battle were barely old enough to remember this century’s “day of infamy” that ignited the global war on terror.
Many beautiful human beings, who might otherwise be working civilian jobs, caring for, and enjoying family and friends, have fought and died in the fray.
In some ways this war is markedly different from the wars of our parents and grandparents. Most of our lives are not consumed by the war effort like in WWII when victory gardens, rationing, and scrap metal drives were prevalent and every sector of society was doing its part to support the cause of freedom.
Nowadays, our armed services, amazingly, are all volunteer. This isn’t a war of conscription like WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.
Despite these important distinctions, our lives have been shaped and continue to be shaped by 9/11. Think of how much politics and national security are defined by the ramifications of that day. Every election cycle, candidates promulgate their ideas regarding the war, the troops, and how to keep America safe.
Think about how much the travel experience has been altered because of that day. Being born at the beginning of the nineties, I remember being able to go past security at the airport and wait to greet my grandma when she came to visit or to wave at the window as we watched the plane take off when she left. Now we can only accompany loved ones as far as the security line where we go through all sorts of safety measures that have changed and grown since 2001 and that have become routine.
We have been taught “if you see something, say something.” Sadly, numerous people have been lost in subsequent terrorist attacks since 2001, such as in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012.
Tomorrow as we reflect as a nation and honor the memory of those who died in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania seventeen years ago, let us also ponder all that has happened in the wake of that day.
One good result of this national tragedy is perhaps that we as a nation are more grateful to our troops and have more of an awareness of what America means as a country and its role in the world. In the immediate days following September 11th, we did unite as a nation and come together in shared prayer and patriotism. We can hope and pray for a return to those sentiments in these days as well.
May God be with all those whose lives were lost or altered on and because of September 11, 2001.
Never forget. 🇺🇸🗽❤️
Just this weekend a classic old Hollywood film soothed a heartache for an evening. My Mom and I watched the 1945 Esther Williams flick “Thrill of a Romance.” It had been a tumultuous, emotional roller coaster ride of a few days, and maybe the sweet simplicity of that old film was just what the doctor ordered as a balm to our taut nerves. In any case, as soon as it started, we both immediately felt more at ease and slept better than we had in nights.
It’s no earth-shaking plot, just an old-fashioned romantic comedy of sorts but with plenty of yesteryear Hollywood glamour and elegance.
Think of some of the Hollywood stars of old: Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Esther Williams, the list could go on…
Elegance, style, glamour.
With my affinity for 1940s and 50s music, movies and fashion, I often quip that I was born in the wrong era.
I think there’s something to be said for the elegance of that by-gone time. We seem to take a casual approach to so many things nowadays. Sometimes people barely differentiate what they wear to church from what they wear to the gym #athleisure. Read this article for an interesting take on athleisure and manners.
Whether we like it or not, fashion choices are a reflection of us, of our values and personalities and tastes.
The generation of our grandparents and great-grandparents had propriety. Certain clothes for certain occasions and locations. Maybe it was a bit too formal, but I think the millennial generation could use an infusion of that polish and refinement. Really, it boils down to respect. How one presents oneself in dress and deportment conveys not only respect for the people and places one encounters but also self-respect.
Then there’s the music of yesteryear. My family and I were listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald duets the other day, and it struck me yet again how, generally speaking, the popular music of long ago was so much more romantic than nowadays. There were true love songs to which one could slow dance and be wooed and fall in love. They present true depths of emotions from sorrow and longing to love and joy to just plain silly fun.
Again respect and elegance and beauty. Moreover, those singers and musicians did not have the technology of today to alter and tweak their voices or their sound. Pure artistic talent was required.
A lot of contemporary music leaves nothing to the imagination (much like today’s movies) but rather mires itself in vulgarity.
I know I am speaking in broad strokes about past and present entertainment, but the general ethos is, I think, pretty close to accurate.
In my experience, taking a little “sentimental journey” via old Hollywood movies or music from another era might just be good for what ails ya.
If you’re looking for some suggestions, here are a few of my favorite old films and songs in no particular order. What are some of your old favorites?
1.) “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
2.) “Sway” by Rosemary Clooney. I like Dean Martin’s version, too!
3.) “Swinging on a Star” by Bing Crosby
4.) “L. O. V. E.” by Nat King Cole
5.) “Sentimental Journey” by Doris Day
1.) “Singing in the Rain,” starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor
2.) “Roman Holiday,” starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck
3.) “Yours, Mine, and Ours,” starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda
4.) “Going My Way,” starring Bing Crosby.
5.) And since I just watched it and really liked it: “Thrill of a Romance,” starring Esther Williams and Van Johnson.
Hello everyone!! A little over a week ago, a long-cherished wish of mine was fulfilled! I finally visited our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., for a day trip with a friend and fellow history-lover.
I live within a comparatively short driving distance from the capital, so it’s a bit unusual that I haven’t played the tourist there before now. But to everything there is a time and a season, and I am so delighted that the time arrived at last! Moreover, it had been an exceedingly wet, rainy week, but we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine for our adventure.🌤
If you’ve never visited D.C., I highly encourage you to make the journey. What I saw and explored only whet my appetite to return to see and do more. I believe it really takes multiple occasions to experience all that history-rich city has to offer.
Upon arriving at our Metro stop by the Smithsonian museums, I emerged from the stairwell to two patriotic, picturesque sights. I looked to my right and saw the Capitol building and looked to my left and the majestic Washington Monument greeted my eyes. It’s not an exaggeration to say this was a thrill. One of those “pinch me” moments!
Though obviously we couldn’t see the whole city in one day, I’m pretty proud of what my friend and I accomplished.
We took in some of the major exhibits at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (rocks & gems, mammals, and a whirlwind pass through the mummies and dinosaurs) as well as four displays at the American History Museum (Star-Spangled Banner, First Ladies, American Presidency, and America on the Move: Transportation).
After revivifying ourselves with cold drinks and chocolate on a bench facing the architecturally magnificent Department of Agriculture Building, we set out for the pièce de résistance of our excursion: the National Mall.
In my inexperience, I had pictured the memorials and monuments of the Mall as more or less in a straight line along the length of the Mall.
No, no. Some are off on side paths which require purposeful walking. By this point, our energy was beginning to wane, so we had to be selective, and we saw four of the eight major sights: the Washington Monument, the WWII Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Korean War Memorial. We also stumbled upon a smaller memorial that is less well-known: the District of Colombia WWI Memorial. I think this somewhat humble monument deserves more attention. WWI was such a significant war, and the memorial’s plaque states that some big names like John Phillip Sousa were present for its dedication. Go search it out!!
All in all, this was a truly awesome day!! One can’t help but be proud to be an American when visiting D.C. No matter who is the president, it’s an amazing moment to look at the White House and think “wow, the president of the United States is in there!”
It is surreal to visit history museums and stand before artifacts like the flag that was flying over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star-Spangled Banner” or to look at the top hat worn by President Lincoln when he was assassinated or to see a pair of Teddy Roosevelt’s chaps. It’s humbling and exciting. It’s like time travel, a link through ordinary items to historical figures who shaped our country and, consequently, our own way of life. It’s a testament to the human need to remember from where we came and to our fundamental need for connection. And it deserves some pondering.
The Mall monuments are truly beautiful. The solemnity of the Lincoln Memorial. One can feel the weight he bore on his shoulders. The haunting expressions of the soldiers that comprise the Korean War Memorial. The wonder and expanse of the WWII Memorial with its pavilions and fountain and numerous stirring quotations from presidents and generals.
I just love it. It’s also plain cool to see and hear visitors from around the world touring the the sights of America’s capital. For all its warts and struggles, America is still a beacon of freedom for the world, and it is a blessing to live in this country.
When many statistics and polls can be pretty disheartening about people’s lack of historical knowledge, it’s also hopeful to see young parents bringing their children to visit these important places of history.
I’m so grateful for my friend’s and my adventure, and I am eagerly awaiting our next trip to explore more of our nation’s capital. 🇺🇸
P.S. The cafeteria in the American History Museum serves really tasty food. Barbecue chicken and cornbread for the win! 😋🍗
Gifts come in diverse places and forms. They can be large or small. They can have life-altering consequences or maybe provide a temporary lightness of heart.
An unassuming, easily overlooked gift arrived in my life a couple weeks ago. I was at the library hurriedly searching for a new story, scanning some of the authors a good friend of mine had suggested but nothing was piquing my interest. I said a quick prayer– yes, I prayed for Jesus to help me find a good book. He cares about all our concerns even those as seemingly insignificant as checking out a book at the library. Finally, I decided to look for another of my friend’s suggestions: Dear Mr. Knightley.
I went over to one of the search computers, typed in the title and, lo and behold, Dear Mr. Knightley was available at that library branch, no request necessary. Thank You, Jesus!
Oh my gosh! I devoured that book. It felt like finding a new friend. And I am now currently re-reading it. 🤓
Though a bit of my initial enthusiasm has waned on a second reading, it’s a book I will likely re-read again in the future.
Dear Mr. Knightley is a well-written, engaging Christian romance/fiction. The characters have some depth and dimension to them and have believable development and growth. Moreover, if the title didn’t give you a clue, this novel is brimming with references to classic English literature (Mr. Knightley is the hero in Jane Austen’s Emma).
Don’t be wary of its Christian classification. It does not brow beat you or preach at you. Rather, it’s through the faith, goodness, and love of some of the characters that the heroine begins to believe in God’s love for her.
Written by Katherine Reay, it is a re-telling of the 1912 story, Daddy-Long-legs by Jean Webster (which is now on my to-read list, haha.)
Samantha Moore, the main character, has had a difficult childhood – abusive parents, in and out of foster homes. She’s now in her early twenties and endeavoring to find her place in the world and to take ownership of her life.
She loves reading and writing (to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables: I think she’s a kindred spirit!) and is attending graduate school for journalism through the financial support of her anonymous benefactor, the mysterious Mr. Knightley. The only condition for the arrangement is that she must write him letters describing her life and her progress in school. Hence, the book’s narrative takes the form of letters penned by Samantha to the mysterious Mr. Knightley.
Reay writes in the afterword that this is a story about forgiveness. Which is true. Samantha states decidedly at the beginning of the story that she does not forgive. However, by the conclusion, she is faced with a life-altering opportunity to forgive, and the painful growth she has undergone may enable her to assent to doing so.
Another motif of the novel is “unwarranted and undeserved” grace, as Samantha’s mentor Father John describes, and the choices we make to accept or reject that grace.
Samantha must accept and acknowledge the wrongs committed against her as well as her own sins and shortcomings and consciously strive to do better. She must give and receive second chances.
Then, of course, there is Samantha’s love life. This brings me to another element of the story: the various types of love.
True, constant love of any variety is something basically foreign to Samantha. She always has used her affinity for literature and its characters as a means to hide and to hold people at arm’s length, actually quoting stories to evade revealing her own thoughts and feelings.
Now, as she begins to blaze a path forward, she must learn to offer and accept love in a healthy way and in a variety of scenarios: to parent/mentor figures, to friends, and to potential romantic love interests.
One of my favorite relationships in the book is between Samantha and Kyle, a teenage foster kid for whom Samantha plays the role of mentor. Yet this mentorship blossoms into a true friendship, and Kyle is the catalyst for an event that brings major healing both to him and to Samantha.
The primary love story, which I won’t spoil, involves a handsome young novelist and is refreshingly clean in this “too-much-information” culture in which we dwell. It has its fairy tale elements, but it also has a lot of reality as two struggling, striving people find friendship and eventually love.
Samantha is relatable to me in many ways. From her physical description (tall brunette), to her proclivity for reading and writing, to her feeling of disorientation and being behind the curve in some areas of life. Our childhoods were not remotely similar, but there is much in Samantha that I think many twenty-somethings can find appealing.
Another perk to this book is the rich reference made to classic literature. It has re-awakened my interest in reading some stories which I haven’t picked up in a long time and in delving into some new ones as well (like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South).
Of course, after reading Dear Mr. Knightley, I wanted to read more of Reay’s work. Accordingly, I checked out The Bronte Plot, also filled with literary references, coming of age, and finding forgiveness. I definitely plan to read more.
As I said at the opening, gifts come in surprising packages sometimes. And though I am always truly grateful for books and stories, finding this new golden nugget felt like a God-wink, a little gift that popped up just when I needed it.
If you’re looking for a breezy summer read that also has heart, I hope you pick it up and enjoy!
The older I grow, the more I love patriotic holidays. Lucky for me, today, June 14th, the country has double the celebration because it’s the U.S. Army’s birthday and Flag Day! 🇺🇸
In honor of this double dose of festive patriotism, here are some fun facts about the Army and Old Glory!
1.) The Army is America’s oldest fighting force, even older the the country itself! Military.com tells us that it was founded by the Second Continental Congress in 1775 in order to protect the 13 original colonies’ freedom. That means that today is the Army’s 243rd Birthday! 🎂🎉We salute all our soldiers and all members of the military! God bless you, one and all!
2.) The American flag’s 13 red and white stripes represent the 13 original colonies while the stars represent all the states in the Union.
3.) Though it is unclear as to the precise reason why the colors of red, white, and blue were selected to adorn the flag, the Congress of the Confederation chose the same trio of colors for the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 for the following representative purposes. Red symbolizes valor and hardiness, white represents purity and innocence, and blue signifies vigilance, perseverance, and justice. (Source: ushistory.org.)
4.) Betsy Ross is credited with sewing the first American flag though it is unclear whether this is actual history or legend. Fun fact: in second grade, I did a project on Betsy Ross, complete with a written book report on a children’s biography about Ross and an in-class presentation for which I was dressed up as our patriotic heroine and distributed graham cracker flag cookies that my Mom had made! 😋
5.) The flag derives its nickname “Old Glory” from Captain William Driver, who seeing the flag unfurl on his ship as he was leaving on a voyage in 1831, exclaimed, “Old Glory!” (Source: ushistory.org)
6.) The American flag should not be allowed to drag on the ground. There are also numerous other guidelines for properly and respectfully displaying and disposing of flags. Google them!
7.) According to Wikipedia, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day, and National Flag Day was established by an act of Congress in August 1946.
8.) The lively, patriotic march “You’re a Grand Old Flag” was written by George M. Cohen in 1906 for his musical George Washington, Jr. (Source: Wikipedia).
9.) Today is also President Trump’s birthday! Whether you like him or not, it’s pretty appropriate that an American president was born on Flag Day.
In case these fun American history tidbits whet your appetite for more information about the emblem of our great nation, do some research on your own. Today is the perfect day to start! And remember to be grateful for the blessings of liberty we enjoy (and take for granted) in our country and for those who’ve fought and died to secure that freedom!
You know that feeling when someone just gets you, gets your situation. No need to try to explain or to justify. That person understands. What a rush of relief! A burden lifted off your heart. An untying of the defensive knot in the pit of your stomach.
Quite the contrast to when someone looks quizzically at you or gives you a semi-blank stare and a perfunctory, polite response. That person doesn’t get it. And he or she is not really interested in trying to do so.
Two of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of understanding are as follows:
“A mental grasp: comprehension”; “sympathy.”
Sometimes the former is not possible. We can’t always comprehend everyone and their individual circumstances. The majority of us cannot fathom the experiences of a military combat veteran. It’s hard for me to grasp the mentality of someone who goes through life without faith in God. Sometimes it’s hard for a family member or friend to understand a loved one who struggles with depression or anxiety. The list is endless.
However, when comprehension is absent, sympathy or maybe empathy can and should fill up the difference.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee writes,
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
One of my primary professors in college taught his students David Sanderlin’s concept of “riding a hobbyhorse” when writing a history paper. A “hobbyhorse” is someone’s individual perception or viewpoint of the world shaped by their unique experiences. We need to be aware of our own hobbyhorse as well as try to figure out the hobbyhorse of the author/historian whose work we are reading.
Like with research, one can identify someone else’s hobbyhorse in real life while still maintaining the integrity of one’s own principles and viewpoint. Extending understanding to another person does not mean we must compromise what we hold to be right and true. It means we show respect to someone whose life experiences have been different than ours.
Understanding is something sorely lacking in today’s society and public discourse.
Everyone nowadays is labeled and pigeon-holed. Groups, demographics, identity politics. Us versus them.
We tend to be scared of what we don’t understand maybe because we’ve encountered something truly foreign to us or maybe because we’re apprehensive that it may challenge our thinking or lifestyle.
Racist. Bigot. Homophobe. Sexist. We hear these epithets thrown around on a daily basis in the media. Perhaps justifiably in some cases. Perhaps more often because we don’t want to admit that the situation or topic around which these ugly labels are used is complex and nuanced.
When we don’t understand a person or a situation or a way of thinking, we resort to petty mockery or personal criticism. We don’t debate an idea or a principle but go after a person. We let our emotions overpower our reason. We invoke flippant sarcasm or ad hominem attacks instead of intelligent wit and logical arguments.
We forget that understanding, whether comprehension or sympathy, is a gift we can give to another. If we can’t attain a “mental grasp,” we can still show sympathy. We can compassionately ask for that other person to share with us and we may find that our own understanding is expanded in the process. Maybe what we can share with that person will help him or her in return.
Whether we’re addressing a different way of thinking or trying to comprehend another person’s health struggle, it takes humility to admit, “I don’t understand, but I want to. Please explain it to me.”
Sanderlin offers this pearl of wisdom in Writing the History Paper,“We will never understand, much less learn from others, if we condemn them for not knowing what we know, rather than respect them for knowing what we do not know.”
We are all children of God. While we debate and hopefully endeavor to seek truth and the common good, we need to remind ourselves that we can all learn from one another.
Again, though he is referring to a study of history, Sanderlin offers sage advice when he states, “The historian strives to understand people in the past that he might better understand himself.”
Endeavoring to understand someone else’s viewpoint may lead us to a deeper gratitude for our own beliefs and life experiences or it maybe it will challenge us to approach some people and situations differently.
Offering support to someone living with with physical or emotional challenges can teach us to have greater patience and compassion and to learn to put someone else’s needs before our own.
We know how freeing and reassuring it is when understanding is extended to us. We need to pray and to strive to offer understanding to others in return.
I’m going to ask for your indulgence again when it comes to my attempts at poetry. This latest poem was partially inspired by a truly awesome opportunity I recently had. In March, the ballet company with which I dance put on a memorable outreach performance at a veterans care facility in my state. We performed a very poignant piece that’s set during WWII. It’s an audience favorite that whisks me away to a different time and place, and I feel so incredibly grateful to be a part of this beautiful tribute to our military, especially those of the WWII era.
After our mini show, we were able to greet many of the elderly veterans who had watched. The warmth of those interactions left a long-lasting imprint with us as dancers.
I have written about supporting the troops before, and the military has a special spot in my heart for numerous reasons. So without further ado, here is:
There he marched,
Tall and straight,
Strength and vigor in his gait.
His uniform, starched and pressed,
American patriotism at its best.
His unwhiskered chin set like steel,
But a glance at his eyes
And one could feel
His fears and hopes and
His home to defend,
The land of the brave,
Family and comrades whom he loved,
For whom he would fight,
Would shed his blood.
A girl, his sweetheart,
The love of his life,
He still prayed that
She would be his wife.
Wrinkled and weathered,
There he sat,
A twinkle in his eyes,
And on his lap
Lay a faded veteran’s cap.
His trembling hand
Reached out for mine.
His grip secure,
Undiminished by time.
I could picture him,
Young and strong,
Filled with devotion, mischief,
His deportment upright,
But his smile,
Now his grin grew wide
As he spoke of his bride
The girl he had once prayed to marry.
They had made a home
With kids of their own,
A life that was blessed
With joy, strife, and rest.
In his heart, her love
He’d always carry.
Then his eyes grew dim,
His mouth became grim
When he remembered
His fallen brothers.
His voice tight and quavering,
With loyalty unwavering,
His attention still upon others.
My heart, it glowed with love and pride,
Tears in my eyes could not be denied.
He thanked me for being there,
“No, thank YOU!” I cried.
While silently I offered a prayer
Of blessing and thanks to God:
“Oh, bless this hero
And all he gave
For the land of the free
And the home of the brave!”
When I initially started writing this post back in the fall, I had recently re-read Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel So Big, which I first encountered in high school. This book is not only enjoyable, but it also arguably offers many profound lessons. Should one pursue worldly wealth or should one sacrifice and work for what is truly fulfilling and for which one has passion and talent? What is beauty and where do we find it? What is a true education? What is the value of living on and working the land versus living in a city? And what are the consequences of the choices we make about our life directions?
So Big is an important, multi-layered book, insightful in its look at cultural history and its philosophical questions about life. On top of all that, it is an engaging story with vivid, believable characters. Ferber doesn’t give the reader a tidy, “happily ever after” conclusion but rather a realistic one with one of the characters facing a moment of crisis and decision about what he will do in his life.
Set in rural Illinois and in Chicago from the late 1800’s to post-World War I, the reader witnesses the deracination of the culture with the Industrial Age and the accompanying generational shifts in people’s priorities and values as well as some of the disillusionment among the wealthy, “gilded youth” after the war.
The book takes its colloquial title from the game parents often play with their toddlers: “how big is baby? Soooo big.” SoBig becomes the childhood nickname of the main character’s son and by the end of the book, the reader is left to wonder about the cost of being “sooo big” in the eyes of the world.
The story centers around Selina Peake Dejong, who is only nineteen when the action of the plot gets going. Her father is loving and good-natured but he is a gambler by trade and tragically becomes the accidental victim of a fatal shooting.
He had instilled in Selina an appreciation for and love of beauty, and he had imparted this seminal piece of wisdom: “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.” He told her that life is a grand adventure.
In order to support herself, Selina takes the position of school teacher in the bucolic, Dutch area of Illinois known as High Prairie. She is something of a fish out of water in the decidedly pragmatic and phlegmatic but welcoming community. Yet, she accepts the challenges of her job and her new farm life as an adventure.
With her characteristic eye for beauty, she exclaims upon first sight that the cabbages grown by the Pooles (the family with whom she stays) are beautiful. Her reaction raises the mirth of all her new companions except for the Pooles’ twelve-year-old son, Roelf whose sensitive, artistic disposition contrasts with his family but finds a kindred spirit in Selina. Selina encourages Roelf’s artistic tendencies and loans him some of her classic literature to read.
Selina marries a farmer and settles on a High Prairie farm into a life she has never imagined for herself.
She has her fair share of hardships, including being widowed and having to raise her young son by herself, but she faces her trials squarely with poise, courage, intelligence, and creativity as she herself matures and grows as a person. She never loses her ideal of beauty but integrates it into all aspects of her life from how she runs her farm, to how she raises her son, to how she treats and views other people.
Even years after first moving to High Prairie, she still finds the cabbages beautiful. Ferber writes, “Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”
Selina has a child-like curiosity and simple kindness about her that attracts other people to her and gives a luminosity to her eyes. Ferber makes a point of contrasting Selina’s eyes to those of Julie Arnold, Selina’s girlhood friend, who attains wealth and societal prestige and can afford all the latest cosmetics. Yet Julie’s eyes do not shine like Selina’s but remain dull despite make-up, perhaps illustrating that old adage that the “eyes are the window to the soul.” Julie does not carry the same inner beauty that Selina possesses.
Selina is steady and steadfast, the “rock” of the story.
Her son Dirk is a different tale. Selina wants Dirk to have more opportunity than a farm life can proffer. She sends him to college where he decides to study architecture. This elates the beauty-loving Selina. However, away from his mother’s grounding influence, Dirk begins to stray from some of the values she held dear, even in how he treats those considered unpopular by the in-crowd.
When the Great War breaks out, Dirk gives up architecture for the more swiftly lucrative career of selling war bonds. He then transitions to banking when the war ends.
He falls into the restless, pleasure-seeking set of wealthy, gilded youth and their insipid, homogenous lifestyle, particularly that of his friend, the conniving and unhappily married Paula.
However, Dirk is ill-at-ease and Paula grates his nerves.
Selina, naturally, is concerned about her son and warns him not to betray beauty, saying that beauty may no longer be there when he decides he wants her. Basically, she is reminding him to take stock of his priorities and what he truly values personally and professionally.
Despite himself, Dirk finds that he is falling for a woman named Dallas, an unassuming, bohemian artist whose views on life are very similar to those of his mother Selina.
Dallas sizes up Dirk and decidedly gives him her opinion, and Dirk is left to accept the consequences of his life pursuits and choose in which direction he will turn.
I really cannot recommend this book enough. I don’t think it is as well-known nowadays as it should be. Its questions and conflicts are as relevant and timely today, if not more so, as they were one hundred years ago.
If you are looking for both a thought-provoking as well as engrossing read, check out So Big. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.