So Big / Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber grew up in Wisconsin and her midwestern roots are evident in this novel. So Big tells the story of Selina Peake DeJong from her teenage years to marriage, widowhood, and finally her later success as a truck farmer living in a Dutch community just outside of Chicago. The author captures the rhythm of life in this rural environment in well-crafted prose, portraying its conservatism, poverty, and sexism in stark detail.

Published in 1924, So Big won the Pulitzer Prize the next year. Ferber was an early feminist, and in Selina she created a strong woman character representing what women could achieve, if only they were allowed to use their intelligence and talents. While subjected to desperate poverty, back-breaking labor, and the loss of her husband, Selina stands tall throughout.

Unfortunately, Selina’s presence dominates only the first half of the story. The focus in the second half shifts to her son Dirk, a young stock broker living in the bustling world of high finance in Chicago. Selina sacrificed many of her dreams to give him the education needed to succeed in life. To her disappointment, he gives up his early ambition of becoming an architect, choosing instead a profession where he could quickly make a fortune and move into the ranks of high society.

While he does rise to become a member of the upper class, Ferber shows what a shallow life he leads in a world where all that matters is becoming rich. This is contrasted with Selina’s simpler world where, despite the daily grind of hard labor, she finds true joy and contentment as her endeavors blossom into a profitable venture. It is a central point of the novel, and yet the shift of focus away from Selina weakens the overall story. She is the one this reader was most interested in, not the son.

Still, it is a book I will recommend to others. Her well-crafted story effortlessly captures the details and vernacular of both Chicago and its surrounding rural environment in the early part of the Twentieth Century. She does not let the feminist themes get in the way of creating truthful characters at a time when the focus in America was shifting away from farming to an urban setting. It is worth the effort to hunt down a copy of the novel in one’s local public library.

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