So Big, by Edna Ferber, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the eponymous Dirk “Sobig” DeJong and his mother, Selina Peake. I am a long-time fan of Ferber – her novel Fanny Herself was one of my favourites when I was a teenager, and although it doesn’t completely hold up to rereading as an adult, I still remember it very fondly. Similarly, I loved a lot of her short stories, so I was surprised to learn that she had a novel I’d never heard of that had won the Pulitzer! I assume that So Big, which was published later than most of what I read when I was younger, wasn’t in the public domain at that point and was therefore not available via the online archive where I first encountered her work. It was therefore a delightful surprise to hear about this novel on the Strong Sense of Place – Chicago episode.
So Big is a character study more than anything else, albeit a rather unusual one in that it does not have a single central character. The first part of the novel is mostly about Selina’s life and experiences, while the second part largely follows Dirk – though, as you would expect, there is plenty of Dirk in the Selina sections, and vice versa. It opens with Selina and Dirk working out in the fields of their farm when the latter is a young child, when she gives him the “Sobig” nickname, before moving rapidly back in time to the death of Selina’s father. This is when the novel gets going – determined not to be reliant on anyone for financial support, she takes the first job she’s able to find, as a schoolteacher in a rural Dutch farming community, High Prairie. (Incidentally, this demonstrates that Lily Bart in The House of Mirth did in fact have options other than looking pretty and trying to marry rich). The rest of the novel unspools gradually, all stemming from that single decision to take the High Prairie job rather than rely on her distant relatives for help.
In this novel, Ferber uses a device that I love, in that she will tell you roughly what’s going to happen to a character when she first introduces them, and thereafter spends several chapters spelling it out, before referring back to her original introduction. I think this is done particularly effectively in this novel, because she reinserts identical or very similar passages of text, which are so much more powerful on their second innings thanks to the chapters of context that come in between. For example, the first time we meet Selina, she’s a nineteen year old girl, but Ferber suddenly makes this comment:
But the eyes were what you marked and remembered […] When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely out of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat on her head, her arms full of sweetcorn, and carrots, and radishes, and bunches of beets; a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt – even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes.
This little reunion with Julie isn’t particularly moving, at the start of the novel. We don’t know either woman, so why would we care what happened to Selina in the intervening ten years? Yet, once the reader has been through those ten years with Selina, seen everything that’s happened to make her that way, Ferber revisits this reunion – and it’s so much more powerful. The text, referring back to her introduction as an optimistic girl and reminding us of how much she’s changed, is so effective.
In addition to being moving, I find Ferber’s writing very funny, especially the way she captures her minor characters in a single sentence. I found myself highlighting many passages as I read.
On one of these occasions, she had spent five minutes chatting sociably with Ethelinda Quinn who had the face of a Da Vinci cherub and the soul of a man-eating shark.
It’s not just the sentence-on-sentence construction that I love. This novel revisits several of the preoccupations of Ferber’s earlier work, especially Fanny Herself (another character study). Ferber seems to have had little time for the rat race elements of the American dream – she isn’t opposed to financial success, exactly, but a lot of her work criticises the prioritisation of money and status above other things, especially when it comes at the cost of other people’s wellbeing or when it leaves no time for actually appreciating life, art, friendship. We see this in Selina’s financial decision-making, both when she’s dirt poor and when she has made more of a success of herself.
As in her leanest days she had bought an occasional book at the cost of much-needed shoes for herself so now she bought many of them with money that another woman would have used for luxury or adornments.
Same, Selina. I spent years superglueing the soles back onto my shoes while spending my meagre student bursary in my local Oxfam Bookshop. Once I had a steady income, I pretty much continued buying all my clothes from Sainsbury’s and Matalan, spending my surplus on new books and nice food instead. I feel like this is something that most book lovers can probably relate to. She’s such a likeable character, and it was a pleasure to spend time with her. In a sense, she’s cut from the same cloth as all those other early 20th century heroines who are Being Independent and Making the Best of Things, but her voice is just different enough to make her interesting to read. Dirk is less likeable, but that’s clearly on purpose. Despite being somewhat frustrating as a person, he’s written brilliantly – in many respects a more complex character than Selina, and it was interesting to see the way that he evolved over the course of the story.
The only false note in the book comes right at the end, with a very caricatured depiction of a Japanese servant. I wouldn’t normally comment on something that’s a passing reference like this – I feel like Ferber tried to write about people of other backgrounds with empathy and interest, much more so than a lot of authors of her time, and am inclined to give her a pass on the occasions when she made a well-intentioned misstep. It runs so counter to the prevailing themes of the book, though, that I think it’s worth noting. Because it’s one of the last moments in the story, it stuck with me. Ferber obviously loved the fact that Chicago was a huge cultural melting pot, having written about subjects like interracial relationships and friendships when that was still a very taboo topic. This is reflected in Selina’s insistence that all types of people are interesting, and a well-rounded life means having friends from many nationalities, religions, classes, professions, levels of wealth etc. And yet, in the last pages of the book, there is this strange inclusion of a pronounced racial stereotype (I’m talking Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s level cariacature), of a person being treated like an object, which undermines much of what Ferber has been writing about. I’ve thought about this from different angles, trying to convince myself that it’s from the point of view of a particular character and therefore meant to be at odds with the rest of the novel – but I think it’s the narrator’s perspective that we get here. Still, this off note was not enough to affect my reading experience too much.
Overall, I loved So Big and I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read this summer – maybe one of the best I’ve read all year. I’m glad I was reminded of Ferber’s body of work, and made aware that more of it has come into the public domain – I can’t wait to work through some of her other books. It’s available on Project Gutenberg (here), and I’d love to know what you think of it if you pick it up!