Monday, January 27, 2020

So Big by Edna Ferber

"The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they're not pleasant things. That's living." (p. 10)

Edna Ferber is one of those authors that has sadly fallen off the radar. Winner of the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and author of several other well-regarded books, she is unfortunately an author that hardly anyone reads anymore. Published in 1924, So Big is the story of Selina Peake, a young, idealistic woman who falls on hard times after the sudden death of her gambler father.

At nineteen, Selina is forced to take a job as a schoolteacher in a farming community outside of Chicago, a job she is able to find through a school friend's father, a successful butcher. She hopes to return to Chicago in a year and find a better job, and the locals find her odd. Selina tries to find beauty in her surroundings, and finds a kindred spirit in young Roelf, the teenage son of the farmers who provide her with room and board. She also begins tutoring a local Dutch farmer, whom she eventually marries. Selina throws all her energy into making a success as a farmer's wife, and soon a mother, but the farm is on poor land and her husband is stubborn and unwilling to make changes. It seems Selina is destined for a downward spiral; however, she takes matters into her own hands, defying conventions. With her determination, plus a bit of deus ex machina, her luck begins to change -- for herself, and her young son Dirk, also known as "So Big." In the second half of the book, Dirk becomes the protagonist as he works hard to elevate himself from a farmer's son to a success. Eventually he tries to break into Chicago society, though it's hard for him to ignore his roots. 

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. I didn't know what to expect, but I really liked the character of Selina, and how she was determined to be a success one way or another. Her story reminded me a bit of Laura Ingalls from The Little House on the Prairie series, particularly These Happy Golden Years (the eighth volume in which Laura teaches in a one-room schoolhouse). I was actually more interested in Selina than in her son Dirk. She's present in the second half of the book but is more of a peripheral character. Dirk was kind of annoying and superficial. 

I also loved reading a book set in Chicago, where I lived for about ten years. Of course this book is set nearly 100 years ago and it's vastly different now, but I did recognize some of the street names and mentions of famous buildings and hotels like The Palmer House. 

My only quibbles with the book were some racist language (insert eyeroll here; I know, it's a product of its time, but still, yuck.) Also, I found the ending of the book to be a little abrupt. Overall, though, I really enjoyed it and now I'm curious about more of Ferber's works. I know she wrote Giant which is set in Texas (another place I've lived!); and Cimarron, both of which were adapted into movies; and Show Boat, which was adapted into a famous Broadway musical, which I saw on tour when I was very young. 

I'm counting this as my Classic by a Woman Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge.


  1. Hi Karen, it is puzzling why certain writers continue to be read and studied and others fall by the wayside. Booth Tarkington, another example, and one would think that if someone is a fan of Willa Cather They might like So Big as well. I am curious to read this novel and thanks for a very fine review.

  2. I've never read any Edna Ferber but like you am impressed with her output and influence (Show Boat, Giant, etc.) The Laura Ingalls vibe (and maybe also Cather as Kathy notes above) should also totally work in her favor with modern readers.

  3. So Big was so good! I've been meaning to read more of her books ever since reading it a number of years ago as a Classic Club Spin, but you know...other books always seem to jump ahead of the queue!
    Thanks for the reminder though to bring another of her books to the top of the TBR :-)

  4. I’m not sure why Ferber is so overlooked these days. I remember absolutely loving Show Boat, which I read 2-3 times in my teens. The story of So Big as a Willa Cather feel to me, as least as you’ve described it, and it’s interesting that you found it reminiscent of LIW, whom I still love. The racist language is hard to take, especiallly in authors I like or want to like—I stopped reading Twain’s Roughing It because I just couldn’t excuse his description of Native Americans.


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