Yikes! I've been doing more reading than writing lately. I've been bouncing from one Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to another lately without taking the time to reflect. Shame on me!
Edna Ferber's So Big started me on this kick. This was the pick of one of my book clubs, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed learning more about Ferber. One of the famed Algonquin Round Table members, Ferber devoted her life to writing. Sigh, I was born in the wrong era. I would have loved that life, those clothes...but I digress.
I hadn't read any Ferber--did you know she wrote the novels on which Show Boat and Giant are based? I didn't! She won the Pulitzer in 1924 for So Big.
So Big tells us the story of Selena, a young girl who grows up with a gambler for a father. When he is rolling well, they live the high life; when he's not, they eat at the boarding house table. But he always managed to pay her way at an exclusive girls' school. She gets a strong education from school and from him. When he dies unexpectedly, she has to make her own way. She takes on a schoolteacher job at a small farming community outside of fast-growing Chicago.
Her appreciation of beauty helps her see the color afforded by simple things, such as a field of cabbages, as she approaches her new life. This sentiment arouses rare humor in the taciturn, hard-working Dutch farm family with whom she comes to live. She finds a kindred spirit in their son, Rolff. Her influence, while brief, has a lasting impact on his life.
Before long, she finds herself agreeing to marry one of the community's farmers--a kind man, but no great shakes in the imagination department. Selena tries to get him to see what their farm could be, but he continues in the ways of his father.
They have a son, Dirk, whom she nicknames "So Big" from the old baby game: "How big is baby?" "Sooooo Big". You can just picture her taking the time from digging up vegetables from the garden to play this game with her baby, taking great joy in seeing him hold his arms wide.
When she finds herself on her own again, Selena manages to carve out a life for herself and her son. She raises him with her values, but he internalizes things much differently. His life experiences are significantly altered from her own. It's a classic story of a parent who wants a better life for her child and works hard to make sure of it, but then is surprised to see how different the child turns out. Children who have a better life aren't forged by the same fires as their parents and thus don't form their characters, values, or work ethics the same way.
Selena and Dirk have a great love for one another, even if they don't fully understand each other. The story shifts to focus on Dirk's life. He has many of the things that constitute success in that era. After an attempt at an architecture career (of which his mother has very high hopes), Dirk decides to become a bond salesman (a career his mother doesn't fully understand). He is very good at it--he makes good money--he lives in a lovely a part of town. Yet, it is very clear to the reader that he really doesn't have anything. He has no wife and children; he cannot point to anything lasting that he has created or improved. He cannot see that, though, until an artist comes into his life.
His feelings for the artist force him to examine his life--he sees that she and his mother have more in common than he would have ever envisioned. He sees his life as a "rubber stamp" of Selena's--a cheap imitation in other words. He finds himself at a crossroads.
Chicago looms in the background throughout the story, growing and sprawling across the pages, making it as defined a character as Selena or Dirk. A truly American story of success and how that is defined--I couldn't put it down.