Monday 1 February 2016

So Big by Edna Ferber

So Big was my lucky #CCspin 11 book.

It ended up on my classic TBR pile because it was a Pulitzer prize winning book from 1924.

I'm trying to read my way through as many of the prize winning books as I can. So I was delighted with this spin choice.

I also had the pleasure of reading So Big in the company of Christy @A Good Stopping Point.
Her review is here.

First up, I loved the setting for So Big.

Chicago in the late 1800's is not a period of American history I am very familiar with, so I was fascinated to learn of the Dutch emmigrants who settled in the area as truck gardeners (or market gardeners as we would say in Australia).

High Prairie (now a community area of Chicago called Roseland) was home to a group of hard working Dutch families in the 1880's who eked out a living in this strange new land.
It was a tough life. Babies died, it was bitterly cold, it rained too much, it didn't rain enough, the days were long, life and education were ruled by the seasons, people suddenly got sick and died, there was never enough of anything.

Into this life, waltzes Selina Peake, the new school teacher with her dreams of beauty and adventure.

Her story didn't really go as I expected it to.

After getting to know Selina so well in the early stages of the book, her subsequent marriage and family life seemed to go by very quickly, and suddenly, her son, Dirk (a.k.a. SoBig because of a cute childhood game) was grown up and we were seeing the world, and Selina, through his eyes.

I thought this was going to be a story about pioneer life and women's issues. Instead it turned into a story about the privileged, entitled next generation taking the older hard working generation for granted. It was actually quite modern with its themes of living in the moment and embracing the beauty to be found in the everyday stuff of life.

I wasn't expecting a generational saga in such a slim volume.

Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it.

I loved it.

Apparently, Ferber based Selina on a real life person called Widow Antje Paarlberg (whose family home has been preserved by her ancestors in South Holland, Illinois below).

Ferber wrote about 40 books and plays. Many of these have been turned into movies, including Show Boat, Giant, Cimarron, Saratoga Trunk and, of course, So Big. Who knew?

Isn't it curious how someone who was so popular and well-known in the arts community at one time, can disappear so completely from the scene in just one generation? In fact, it sounds like the ideal plot for a Ferber story!


  1. I read this one for a book club several years ago and loved it.

    1. I've enjoyed So Big so much that I've ordered another one of Ferber's books that I found still in print :-)

  2. Great review of this book.

    i read books that turned out to be what I expected, It is a really neat surprise when they end up being worthwhile anyway.

    I have also been thinking of reading through lists of Prize winners. But time is so short and there is so much to read!

    1. The Pulutzer prize winning books have been a pretty fine bunch so far. Whereas some of the other prizes that I'm reading my way through have not been as consistently good, or perhaps that's, consistently to my taste :-)

  3. Anonymous2/2/16

    This one is on my Classics Club list. I'm happy to hear you enjoyed it, even though it wasn't what you expected.

  4. I also had very little idea of where the story was going to go. I remember being a bit worried when Selina married, because it was clear that it was a mistake, but it turned out all right.
    It is interesting, as you note, that someone could be so prolific and popular but then go quite out of fashion. Sometimes, it's easy to see why - if the material just doesn't date well, but So Big does hold up very well!

    Thanks for linking to my review! I realized I forgot to mention that you also read it in my post, so I've updated it with a link to your post as well.

    1. I also had concerns with the marriage - I thought we were going to see a real mismatch of personalities as Selina bowed under the pressure to conform and give up her notions of beauty and independence.

      It was fascinating that she was able to keep these ideals for herself, even as her son disavowed them by his choices in life.

  5. I kept suggesting this one to my Classics Book Group a couple of years ago because Ferber is originally from Texas. I never realized that this book was about Chicago! I should really read it because I lived there for ten years. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. I just looked on Wikipedia and she isn't from Texas at all -- she's from Michigan! I must have gotten confused because Giant is set in Texas. But I still want to read this.

    2. It would make for a great book group read - lots of different things to discuss - the setting, emigration, the pioneering life, women's issues, generational differences, ethics......

      I hope you can convince them soon.

  6. I, too, am embarking on a project to read many (not all) Pulitzer Prize winners. This book didn't even make it on to my radar when I was creating my list. I will definitely go back and add it now. I also read a Pulitzer, The Yearling, and loved it, too, though it was a tough book to get through in parts. I would be honored if you would read my review. Thank you. The Yearling

    1. Your review of The Yearling is beautiful Anne - the book is definitely on my radar.

      I'm glad you're on the look out for So Big now because I really believe Ferber's work should be rediscovered by a new generation. Thanks to my Pulitzer reading I've not only discovered her, but Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner and Booth Tarkington.

  7. Anonymous5/6/16

    Now I can finally read your review! I put it off until I read the book. My review is ready for uploading in Septmeber. The schedule-option on Wordpress is a great tool. I find I can relax while writing, knowing that publishing is not necessary 'right now!" The 'summer break' is a great investment in my peace of mind. I completely forgot to mention of the 'Dutch' connection in my review. Go figure..and me living in The Netherlands, how dutch can you get? The only thing that was lopsided was Ferber's line: 'So dumb as a Groningen." Groningen is a northern province in Holland, farms, sheep cows etc. People are considered not as 'street-wise' in the north. Well, I live in the North, province next to Groningen... in Friesland...and I'm street-wise!. The expression : "Og heden" was very good. Maartje says that all the time. It means ' Oh, my goodness' Great review...and this was just a wonderful book!


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