All, Bookworm

“So Big”: It’s a Big Deal

Edna_Ferber
Edna Ferber

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.

Advertisements
All, Bookworm

On Books

There’s nothing like walking into a bookstore and having the scent of books hit my olefactory sense. Whether it is the pungent mustiness of used tomes or that “new book smell,” shelves lined with books ignite curiosity and bring comfort.

For me, reading simultaneously feels like coming home and setting off for uncharted adventures. Reading a new book and making the acquaintance of the characters dwelling in its pages is like making a new friend. And like human friendships, there is always room for more.

“Books are the most wonderful friends in the world. When you meet them and pick them up, they are always ready to give you a few ideas. When you put them down, they never get mad; when you take them up again, they seem to enrich you all the more.”

– Venerable Fulton Sheen

All sorts of genres: fiction, history, biography, religion, poetry, philosophy, fantasy– they all have a different “personality” through their various styles and myriad characters. They all teach you, comfort you, entertain you, challenge you, in diverse and wonderful ways.

Even now as a young adult, I relish going back and reading children’s literature. Classic kids’ books from the Chronicles of Narnia to the Berenstain Bears series to Charlotte’s Web to the Tales of Beatrix Potter, these enduring stories and others in the canon of time-honored children’s literature impart important lessons that are valuable to young, old, and in-between.

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

-C. S. Lewis

During my senior year of college, one of my echoing refrains was that I couldn’t wait to be able to read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted again.  Sure enough in the year-plus since graduation, one of my most pleasurable, restoring, and peaceful past times has been reading. Lying in a hammock in the warm sunshine of a drowsy afternoon or the cool evening breeze with a book or two–that is my happy place.

I have always been a voracious reader, a bookworm, a bibliophile.  As nerdy as it may sound, I am truly grateful for the gift of stories, literature, books, and for the authors who pen these friends in leaf-and-binding form.

Before I was homeschooled, one of the best parts of “regular” school was when I’d walk into the classroom in the morning and find a Scholastic book order on my desk. I would eagerly open it up and begin circling the books I hoped my parents would purchase for me.  Oh the joys of childhood!

I can definitely relate to that song from “Arthur,” one my favorite book series and TV shows from childhood. “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

I know you children of the nineties are singing along. 😉

Speaking of nineties TV shows, who remembers “Wishbone”? Another of my favorites. A cute, spunky Jack Russell terrier imagining himself as the hero of classic literature like Tom Sawyer and Romeo and Juliet, all the while going on relatable adventures with his owner Joe and Joe’s friends, Sam (Samantha) and David. Talk about truly educational children’s television! (For those of you who want a trip down memory lane, most of the old Wishbone shows can be found on YouTube.)

I don’t really know the point of this rambling and perhaps maudlin post except maybe just take it as a PSA in favor of reading! Haha. Reading really can improve your life, expand your vocabulary, help you to think critically and creatively, and introduce you to new places and people.

To all my fellow bookworms, keep on reading! Even if you’re not much of a book person, maybe listen to a book on CD or online.

I hope it’ll bring you much happiness!

PC: https://www.facebook.com/I-Love-Dogs-And-Books-185755638206971/