So Big

At some point I decided to read all the novels that have won the Pulitzer Prize. Or at least to try and read the novels, using my mom's rule, which is to read the first chapter and give the book an honest chance. (In other words don't be grouchy when you try the book or you're almost guaranteed to not want to finish it.) I read the first few then got distracted and forgot all about my plan. This week I picked up So Big by Edna Ferber, which won in 1924, and absolutely loved it.

The novel tells the story of Selina Peake DeJong, a woman who loves beauty and adventure but spends much of her life on a small farm, which is in terrible shape when she first sets foot on it. She is the child of a gambler and spends her early years in a state of flux, sometimes living high on the hog and sometimes scraping by on little. She eventually goes to finishing school where she meets her best friend Julie Hempel and stays until her father is killed by a stray bullet. She inherits almost five hundred dollars and two small diamonds. She puts the money in the bank and sets off on what she plans to be a grand adventure; teaching school in the Dutch farmland not too far from Chicago, where her friend lives.

Here she stays with a farming family called Pool that mostly doesn't understand her. There is a farmer, a farm wife, two young girls in pigtails and one boy named Roelf who loves beauty and art. Roelf is the only one who doesn't view her as a bit of a freak. When Selina came to the farm she told Mr. Pool, the farmer she boards with, that the cabbages were beautiful; all jade against other gem colors, something that literally makes Mr. Pool laugh for years. Only Roelf knows what she means and sees the same beauty and is knocked back by it. He is so stifled by the farm that he eventually runs away and goes to Paris, to be an artist.

Selina is drawn to a big, bluff farmer by the name of DeJong who makes a grand romantic gesture, which she repays by teaching him three nights per week. She eventually marries him and gives birth to her son Dirk, who she calls So Big, after the time honored game of "how big is baby?" DeJong's truck farm, an expression I was unfamiliar with, is nearly useless. If he plants crops that like wet weather there is a drought. If he sows with dry weather in mind rain falls from the sky like mad, ruining his crop. Half of his small farm is unusable sodden clay and he barely manages to eke out a living for his small family.

Selina has big plans for the farm, which DeJong is not that thrilled to hear about. He believes that the wife should work in the home, not on the farm and scoffs at her ideas that she gets from books. She has to put most of plans on hold as she raises her baby, until her husband succumbs to an illness, leaving Selina in charge, with very little money and a young boy to support. She sets to work draining the sodden fields, trying new fertilizer and trying to sell her vegetables herself, something that is unheard of for a woman in her time. As she lives her hardscrabble existence she tries to pass her love of beauty to her son, but he is mainly motivated by money. She warns him there may come a time when he longs for beauty but will no longer have the ability to appreciate it or be truly stirred by it.

It's beauty that makes this story so compelling. The writing is lyrical and a pleasure to read, making it easy to understand why this book won such a prestigious award. There is a scene towards the beginning of the book where Selina is riding with Pool heading to his farm and the descriptions of his movements and emotions are hilarious and gorgeous. There were many passages that I shared with my family as they were too good to keep to myself. Anyone with a love of art and the amazing things we encounter every day should find something to connect with in So Big.

You can browse inside the book here: http://browseinside.harpercollins.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060956691

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Gavin who says, "Do not buy the Cheese Squares at Target. They taste like they're made from compressed cardboard and pencil shavings." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.