So Big by Edna Ferber

I’ve read So Big (first published in 1924) by Edna Ferber many times since I was a little girl. It is one of several classic books that shaped my idea of what being an admirable woman would involve:  an appreciation of beauty, a love of learning, enthusiasm, a capacity for love, an ability to work very hard, and, above all, resilience. In So Big, Ferber creates a wonderful character in her protagonist, Selina, and uses beautiful language to do it.

Ferber kicks off the book by immediately grounding it in a mundane portrait of everyday life and behavior that almost every parent has at some time indulged in. Selina is described working – at housework, at cooking, at farming. She is a woman “[w]ith little time for the expression of affection. The work was always hot at her heels.” However, from time to time, Selina would glance at her baby and this happens:

Yet, in that moment, as the woman looked at the child there in the warm moist spring of the Illinois prairie land, there quivered about them an aura, a glow, that imparted to them and their surroundings a mystery, a beauty, radiance.

“How big is baby?” Selina would demand, senselessly. “How big is my man?”

The child would momentarily cease to poke plump fingers into the rich black loam. He would smile a gummy though slightly weary smile and stretch wide his arms. She, too, would open her tired arms wide, wide. Then they would say in a duet, his mouth a puckered pink peal, hers quivering with tenderness and a certain amusement, “So-o-o-o big!” with the voice soaring on the prolonged vowel and dropping suddenly with the second word. Part of the game. The child became so habituated to this question that sometimes, if Selina happened to glance round at him suddenly in the midst of her task, he would take his cue without the familiar question being put and would squeal his “So-o-o-o big!” rather absently, in dutiful solo. Then he would throw his head back and laugh a triumphant laugh, his mouth a coral edifice. She would run to him, and swoop down on him, and bury her flushed face in the warm moist creases of his neck, and make to devour him. “So big!”

So Big relates the story of Selina’s life. She is raised by her father, a gambler, who teaches her to roll with the punches (metaphorically – sometimes they have a lot of money and sometimes none). When he dies, she gets a job as a teacher in a community of Dutch farmers in Illinois known as High Prairie. She marries one of the farmers, Pervus, and discovers how hard farming life can be.

Selina has one son who survives childbirth – Dirk (the baby who plays the “so big” game). Selina experiences a change of fortune and becomes prosperous. She hopes that this will allow Dirk, who is interested in architecture, to explore the arts and the intellect in a way that she wasn’t able to.

The second half of the book is centered on Dirk, and yet Selina keeps stealing the story from the edges. Dirk becomes obsessed with earning money (he sells bonds). Selina is disappointed in this outcome and yet she herself thrives, finding satisfaction in her work and the friends she continues to make.

This story is not a romance novel – in fact, romantic relationships tend to go badly. However, it does have some of the most AMAZING romantic moments. The lunch auction! The slate! The machinations of the Widow Paarlenberg, which entertain and delight the High Prairie congregation every Sunday! The trilliums!

Beyond romance, the story is full of complex women. Selina’s friend Julie is usually quite happy to be led about, but in moments of crisis she shows amazing stubbornness. Maartje Pool, the woman with whom Selina boards, is shabby and overworked and lacks education but she is the core of her family. Some of the women are clearly forces of nature and some less so, but none of them should be underestimated.

There is some language that was not considered offensive at the time (pre-WWII) but is today. However, Selina is a model of someone who is interested in everyone and everything. As an older woman, whenever she visits Dirk, she likes to explore different parts of Chicago, especially those populated by different communities (Italian, Chinese, and Black, for instance). To Dirk’s utter horror, she takes random people home to her farm and feeds them, not out of pity, but out of interest, enthusiasm, and a genuine love of feeding people. Dirk treats his Japanese servant much like any other expensive appliance. Selina would have the man’s life story within five minutes.

There are so many themes in this book to pick apart. For instance, there’s the book’s unashamed embrace of unregulated capitalism – the one element of the book that I heartily dislike. There’s also the theme of living for another person. Selina lives for Dirk, hoping to impart to him an appreciation of beauty and an acceptance of other people. Her goal is to give him all the tools he might need to follow his dreams, whether those dreams turn out to be lucrative or not. Paula, a beautiful friend of Dirk’s, is a whip-smart woman with a love of money and fantastic business sense. In a later time period she’d be a financial mogul, but instead she has to live vicariously through Dirk, feeding him ideas and convincing him that they are his own. While the second half of the story is told from Dirk’s point of view, he is not nearly as interesting as either of the women who share such an interest in him.

The element of the book that has always stuck with me, from my first reading at about the age of ten to my most recent reading last week at the age of forty-four, is the portrayal of Selina. Regardless of whether she is doing well or badly, she never allows an often joyless life to sap her ability to find joy in the world. It’s not that she’s a Pollyanna-type of person, nor is she perpetually cheerful. It’s simply that she never stops noticing things. The same characteristic of noticing potential that helps her in business helps her in life.

Early in the book, Selina rides to High Prairie from Chicago for the first time with Klaas Pool in his wagon. Selina is enchanted by the landscape and gushes about it to Klaas, who is utterly baffled. For the rest of his life, he teases Selina with the phrase, “Cabbages are beautiful!” The author relates that Selina is not offended by Klaas’s mirth; she’s too excited about her new life to be offended.

For equipment she had youth, curiosity, a steel-strong frame; one brown lady’s-cloth, one wine-red cashmere; four hundred and ninety-seven dollars; and a gay, adventuresome spirit that was never to die, though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps, painfully. But always to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

I’m so grateful to this book, which taught me early to value beauty in the ordinary. It is one of my formative books, all of which share a similar trait of heroines who are resilient, tough, generous, blessed with an unshakeable sense of self, and capable of finding beauty and joy in everyday life. Some others that leap to mind that I discovered young are A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and of course my beloved Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I have felt so blessed to have these heroines in my life, reminding me that cabbages are beautiful.

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So Big by Edna Ferber

1924

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