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 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.