I discovered So Big the other day when I was wandering around Barnes & Noble. I had just finished East of Eden, and I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to read next. I was also really tired of reading on a Kindle. These days, I very rarely buy books at full price. For one, I work in a library! If I want a book, I can usually pick it up while I’m there. If it’s not at the main branch, I can wait a couple of days and have a copy sent from the other branches; if none of the branches have it, we have a great interlibrary loan system. But that takes longer than a few days, and I like my books delivered Netflix streaming style. So I wanted instant gratification, and I was willing to put down a bit of cash for it.
I started with the summer reading tables, and I didn’t find anything that interested me, so I started browsing the As. The fiction section at Barnes & Noble is continually shrinking (they obviously don’t care about selling books anymore), so I made it to the Fs pretty quickly. The design of the book’s spine caught my eye (sometimes I do judge books by their covers), and I picked it up and read the back. It sounded interesting, and I saw that it had won the 1924 Pulitzer Prize. A point in its favor. Then I looked it up on Goodreads and saw rave reviews, with comments like “I feel like I’ve been let in on some literary secret!” I’m always into discovering new writers, so I couldn’t help myself. I was intrigued. Book in hand, I confidently walked up to the checkout and paid the full $14 (remember when trade paperbacks were, like, $7?).
And it was so worth it.
I really liked So Big. It made me smile more than most books do. The characters felt alive. I’m pretty sure this is one of those books that I’ll confuse with a movie at some point. I guess a plot rundown is in order.
So Big is the story of Selena DeJong and her son. It begins with Selena’s background: her father was a professional gambler, and they traveled around the country, living well when he did well, and living poorly when he did poorly. Eventually, they settled in Chicago, and no matter what his financial situation, he kept her in a good school. Most of the other students had more money than they did. When Selena was 19, her father died, and she was left with about $500, which was a good deal of money in early twentieth-century Chicago. Her best friend, Julie Hempel, had her family get Selena a job as a schoolteacher in High Prairie, a Dutch farming community not far from Chicago. (I’m going on a bit long with this summary…) She moves in with a Dutch family. The oldest child, Roelf, is brilliant and attaches himself to Selena almost instantly. He wants to learn, but his parents make him work on the farm instead. Soon, Selena meets Purvus DeJong, and they marry and have a child, Dirk. Roelf, only thirteen, runs away to meet his destiny. Selena leads a hard life on the farm and wants something better for Dirk. Life keeps happening. This plot summary is long enough already. Just read the book.
So Big is a beautiful portrait of wealth and poverty in Chicago in the early twentieth century, and it’s totally worth a read. I’ve been trying to figure out why Edna Ferber, despite writing many critically acclaimed books, wasn’t canonized. The best explanation I’ve seen is that the academics don’t like commercial successes.