Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 1924 is an invigorating story about a determined woman facing life head on, overcoming heartache, loss, and extreme hardship, and her efforts to raise her son to appreciate all the beauty life has to offer.
When her gambler father is killed as a result of a misunderstanding, nineteen-year-old Selina Peake doesn’t have time to thoroughly grieve, since she has to figure out a way to support herself. With the help of a friend’s influential father, she takes a job as a schoolteacher in a rural farming community of Dutch immigrants. Selina can’t help but think of this as a grand adventure, even as the roughness of life in the farmland tests her high spirits. Eventually, Selina manages to earn a place in the community, though the others never quite understand her. Selina marries and becomes a farmer’s wife, with all the toil and labor that entails.
Selina’s son Dirk is her pride and joy, and though she loves her farmer husband she can’t help but wish for better for the boy she calls “So Big.” (As in, “How big is baby?” “Sooooo Big!”) Without going into too much detail, events transpire to give Selina the chance to make her dreams for Dirk come true, but whether Dirk will appreciate and take advantage of this opportunity forms the crux of Ferber’s novel.
Ferber’s prose wonderfully evokes the relentless pace of change in the era that So Big encompasses. In large sections the novel elegantly dispatches with great swaths of time, such as taking Selina from age nine to age twelve in about two sentences or covering Dirk’s war service in a page and a half. Sometimes when Ferber stops and settles in to her story it can feel a little slow by comparison, but her attention to detail, and the immense care that she puts into getting things to feel right and true, more than makes up for it.
For a book nearing its 90th birthday, So Big feels quite modern, with the exception of a few antiquated words that have disappeared from the language. But the emotions, ideas, and conflicts evident in So Big are mostly the sort that still resonate today. Sexism may not be as vexing as it was at the turn of the 20th century, but it still persists, and the conflict between personal fulfillment and earning money will never end.
So Big is a novel of its time and for all time. I am sure present-day readers will fall in love with Selina and her practical, big-hearted, indomitable life.