Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Pulitzer Project: So Big

This one's a keeper. That didn't come as a surprise -- anyone who could crank out as many best sellers as Edna Ferber did had to be capable of at least telling a decent story. She could do more that, though. Danielle Steele tells stories; Edna Ferber could actually write. I was vaguely familiar with Ferber's work before I started So Big, the novel that won her the Pulitzer in 1925. I doubt there's a person on the planet who hasn't seen Showboat (there have been four movie adaptations to date) or Giant (Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean!), and I'd felt obligated to read Come and Get It because I graduated from high school in the town (Hurley, Wisconsin) that allegedly served as the model for the rowdy brothels and bars community Ferber so colorfully describes. I'd never gotten around to reading So Big, though.

So Big is set on the outskirts of Chicago at the end of the 19th century. Ferber takes some familiar conventions and twists them in intriguing ways. She has the plucky heroine, so well-loved in fiction for generations, who is suddenly orphaned, finds herself almost penniless, and is forced to make her own way in the world. She goes off to teach at a country school, and then is swept off her feet by a handsome Dutch farmer. This is the point where most stories would end -- the traditional happy ending.

Except it's not a happy ending, of course. The handsome Dutch farmer turns out to be both stubborn and stupid, totally oblivious to the fact his schoolteacher wife isn't just more literate than he is, she's also a heck of a lot smarter. He really loves his wife, but the bottom line is he's basically an unimaginative lout, a good-natured idiot totally incapable of entertaining any new ideas. Still, Selina perseveres and manages to find beauty and happiness despite the frustrations, and eventually Pervus DeJong has the good grace to die. Widowed and with a young son to raise, Selina turns it into one of the most profitable truck farms supplying high quality vegetables to the Chicago markets.

When a person looks at the plot outline -- gambler's daughter marries farmer, waits for him to die, and then lives reasonably contentedly ever after -- it really doesn't look like the book would be worth reading. But it is. Ferber had a true gift both for descriptions and for characters. There is nothing flat in the book. You can almost feel the muck rising up around Selina's ankles in the farmyard, and see the bafflement in her son's eyes when she's trying to explain to him the difference between actually living and merely existing. Dirk doesn't get it, but at least when the book ends you get the impression he wants to understand, so maybe eventually he will.

In the introduction to the book, Maria K. Mootry (whoever she might be; I don't have a clue) speculates that one reason Ferber tends to be overlooked and/or forgotten today is she was too successful. Her books don't count as "literature" because they sold too well. I'm not sure they are forgotten or overlooked -- this was the first book in this "project" that was easy to get. The DeKalb library system has multiple copies, and the one I checked out looks to be extremely well-read. It's been rebound at least once already, and it's a 1995 edition.

I was amused to discover as the book progressed that young Dirk DeJong lived on the same street in Chicago that I did briefly. He rented rooms in a boarding house on Deming Place. Ferber doesn't do much neighborhood description, but it was a great place to be during the summer I spent there as a mother's helper, spitting distance from the North Pond in Lincoln Park and an easy walk to the Fullerton Avenue Beach.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you again. And wouldn't you know it - I forgot to look this up at the library today when I was there.


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