Life after Work

So Big by Edna Ferber, Pulitzer Winner of 1925

“So Big” was another sojourn into farming life, but this time with none of the nostalgia. After the death of her beloved father in 1888, Selina Peake, an educated but poor 19-year-old woman from the Chicago area, is an orphan with no prospects. To make ends meet she takes the school teacher position in High Prairie, a farming town mostly populated by Dutch settlers. Selina stays with the Pool family and quickly finds out how harsh life on the farm is, not because she is lacking food, but because people around her are distant and rather cold. They don’t appreciate her sophistication and sense of beauty. The only person she finds a connection with is Roelf Pool, the Pool’s 12-year-old son who had to quit school to work the farm full-time. Selina encourages him to read her novels and pursue his wood carving hobby.

Eventually, Selina marries the widower Pervus de Jong and they have a son Dirk (“So Big” is Dirk’s nick name). Life on the farm with Pervus is a source of seemingly never ending toil. Although she has read about new methods that could improve the farm’s yield, Pervus refuses to try any of Selina’s suggestions. He gets sick and dies and leaves her and 4-year-old Dirk behind. Because Selina is a woman she can’t manage things such as selling the harvest. Men will not accept her as a business partner, so things are starting to look even more grim. By sheer coincidence Selina then runs into a friend from her youth who is well off. The friend’s father can see Selina’s determination and likes her ideals. He helps her out with a loan and that get things rolling. Fast forward in time and Selina is becoming quite successful so that Dirk can go to good schools and study architecture – and he hangs out with shallow high society friends. After working as an architect for a while Dirk changes tracks and against his mother’s will becomes a stock broker because he can make more money that way. In the end this decision leaves him disappointed, when he realizes that in spite of all the wealth, his life is dull and meaningless.

What I liked:

The book is well-written and the descriptions of hard life on the farm ring true. It is interesting that in the beginning, High Prairie (not sure if this is a fictional name or if there ever was a town or village with this name)  seems to be way out in the middle of nowhere, but at the end of the book it is much closer to Chicago because the big city has grown so much and is swallowing up the surrounding farm lands.

What I didn’t like:

Selina is way too angelic. She is pretty (in her own way), always cheerful and positive, smart, too good to be true in other words. She might as well wear a halo. But on the other hand she ultimately was not able to save herself and Dirk. For that she needed some crazy coincidence so that a friend’s father could give her a loan. That coincidence part was unbelievable. It felt to me as if the author had cheated and allowed Selina a short-cut instead of  giving her the ability to come up with the money without “connections”. And then, the ending. I felt bad for Dirk because it was never quite clear what kind of person he was. It was obvious that he did not have Selina’s sense of the aesthetic and artistic streak. Maybe he had inherited this lack from his father? I never had the sense that he cut off a promising architectural career in favor of cold, hard cash. Rather that he did not feel passionate about architecture. Why should he feel guilty about not fulfilling his mother’s dream? After all, she was the one who married a dull farmer who was her complete opposite – why should she be surprised that her son was more like his father than herself?

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