I knew Award Winners was going to be one of the topics for my readers group this year, so when Edna Ferber’s So Big was offered as a Kindle Daily Deal, I grabbed a copy of it for $1.99. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924, ninety years ago, so it really qualifies as a Golden Oldie, too!
It has been a long time since I’ve read Edna Ferber, but I remember enjoying Cimarron when I was in high school and I always liked the movie version of Giant. I wasn’t sure what to expect from So Big, but based on the other two, I expected a big saga. What I found instead was a quiet character study.
The main characters of the book are Selina Peake DeJong and her son Dirk. Selina is the more interesting character, and most of the book is in her point of view. The daughter of a gambler, she spent her childhood traveling from place to place, living on the fringe of polite society. When times were good, they lived in nice hotels. When things weren’t so good, they stayed in working class boarding houses. The book opens when Selina is nineteen and living in a Chicago boarding house, but attending a finishing school where she has made friends with Julie Hempel, daughter of one of Chicago’s most successful butchers.
When Selina’s father is accidentally killed in a gambling house, exposing his occupation as a gambler to the entire city, Selina’s life changes. Now on her own, she needs a job. Julie’s father Aug finds her a job as a country school teacher in a rural area called High Prairie, home to a Dutch immigrant community of truck farmers. Her transition from city girl to farm wife is inevitable when she meets Pervus DeJong, a handsome but poor farmer.
I love the way Ferber adds the cadence of the Dutch accent to her dialogue. It reminded me of the Pennsylvania Dutch sayings I grew up with. For instance, about Pervus and a predatory widow who was chasing him: “Look how she makes! She asks him to eat Sunday dinner I bet you! See once how he makes with his head no.”
After his death, Selina again encounters the Hempels. Aug, who is now a rich meat packer, helps her to make the farm more successful and the Hempels play an important part in Dirk’s life, esp. Julie’s daughter Paula who loves Dirk but marries a rich man instead.
The title comes from Dirk’s boyhood nickname, which he only got rid of by punching anyone who called him So Big in school. When he was a toddler, Selina would look at him and ask, “How big is my little boy?” Then she’d hold her arms wide and say, “Sooooo big.” The expectation is that Dirk will grow up to do something amazing, and that is indeed what Selina expects. But Dirk is seduced by the good life and gives up his profession of architect to become a successful bond salesman, a profession that fails to impress his mother.
Ferber didn’t care for the title, and almost called the book Selina, but after reading it, I think it’s the perfect title. Toward the end, Selina again asks the now-grown Dirk, “how big is my son?” Dirk, who is now questioning his life choices, holds his fingers a short distance apart, and says, “So big.”
I have to say I found the ending abrupt and anti-climactic. Dirk appears to be reconsidering his choice of profession, but it ends with him in a melancholy mood, not having made any decision to stay the course or ditch everything for a new adventure. He has more than a bit of his grandfather’s charm and gambling instincts, but he’s also inherited his father’s conservatism–Pervus resisted Selina’s attempts to modernize the farm. After his death, she made a success of it–which is probably why Dirk gambles with other people’s money instead of his own.
Reading from the perspective of the 21st century, I found myself wondering what happened to Dirk and Selina after the 1929 crash. I figured Selina would have managed; she is a survivor. I’m not sure how well Dirk would have coped. But the book was published in 1924, so of course, Ferber had no idea the Great Depression would crash down on everyone in another five year’s time.
I did enjoy the book and found it a fast read. There’s an addendum at the back about how Ferber came to write the book and how she thought it would be a non-seller and suggested the publisher not even bother to publish it. Fortunately, they ignored her advice.
Another section talks about how she came to win the Pulitzer for this particular book. It involved having friends in high places, specifically as one of the judges on the panel. In the end, So Big won out over it’s main competitor, Balisand by Joseph Hergesheimer. There’s a description of that book and the near miss with the Pulitzer here.
Apparently, there was no runaway favorite in 1925, and even talk of not awarding a prize. Balisand had less enthusiastic proponents who thought it was better written, but White convinced the others that “the theme was thin and the main character unlikable”. (It’s about the politics of early America and the main character is an avid duelist. Somewhat modeled after Aaron Burr, I suspect.) But by the thirties, Hergesheimer’s style of writing was out of fashion and he passed into obscurity. Whether the Pulitzer would have made a difference, we’ll never know. I think Ferber’s book stands the test of time, as her theme of wealth alone not bringing fulfillment is always relevant. And the relative simplicity of her style makes it readable. So I think they made the right choice after all.
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