One of the advantages of belonging to a book group is being introduced to books that you would not otherwise consider reading. So Big by Edna Ferber was off my radar. I once spent a couple of years trying to read selections from great American authors, but Ferber had not made my list. If I had to choose a Ferber title, I might have instead taken Giant, which is set in West Texas where I grew up. But Ferber's 1924 novel So Big was the democratically chosen title for our November discussion, and read it I did.
I quickly found I had a geographic interest in So Big, which I knewwas set in Chicago but did not know it would also include chapters set in High Prairie, Illinois. High Prairie is fictional Dutch immigrant farming community based on South Holland, a suburb south of Chicago. When I came to the Chicago area, I worked and lived near South Holland, a well-tended village with many Dutch Reformed Churches. It was interesting to read about its farming days when the community supplied the Chicago market with vegetables, especially cabbages and onions. One of the protagonists of So Big makes her mark by growing asparagus and raising pigs.
I say one protagonist because the first two thirds of the book focus on Selina Peake who when orphaned at eighteen takes a teaching position in High Prairie. She only teaches one year before marrying a handsome but poor farmer. While working hard along his side, she discovers he is unwilling to take risks that might improve the farm and their finances. Trying to get him to drain the marshy fields, she shows him government farming pamphlets, but he will not change. His death gives her the responsibility and opportunity to do better. And she does. Readers come to admire her for her studious perseverance and the maturing of her regard for the community that had once made fun of her. Her story is the best part of the book.
The final third is about her son Dirke, who had been called So Big as a toddler. His mother's success allows him to go to college to become architect, a profession for which he really has no talent or commitment. He instead in given a position in banking which he rides to wealth. His life, however, proves shallow. Ferber does not predict the 1929 crash of the economy, but the reader can fit her story into history quite well.
Being easy to read and feeling very authentic, So Big is a good choice for a book club that will read classics.
Ferber, Edna. So Big. Grosset & Dunlap, 1924.