I have met a fictional kindred spirit and soul sister–and she’s a Midwesterner to boot! Her name is Selina Peake DeJong, and you can find her in Edna Ferber’s So Big.
I don’t quite remember how I ended up reading this book. I think I looked up Giant, one of my all-time favorite movies (I mean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean–come on!), and learned that it was based on a book by Edna Ferber–really? So that made me look up books by Ferber, where I stumbled upon So Big, which won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize. Well . . . I had to read that!
And boy, am I glad I did. It has been awhile since I’ve read a book that I have really loved, and I relished this one. I was sorry when it was over.
From Selina’s perspective, her early years are charmed. Her father, a gambler, wants her to see that life “is just a grand adventure. A fine show. The trick is to play in it and look at it at the same time.” Unfortunately, Selina is on her own at a young age, and, being determinedly independent and hardworking, she decides to support herself by teaching. She ends up living among the Dutch south of Chicago and marrying a truck farmer, Pervus DeJong, “a kindly creature, tender and good, but lacking any vestige of initiative,” who struggles to grow vegetables and sell them in the city. At this time, Selina awakens to the idea that she, her husband, and their farm are “a vital part in the vast mechanism of a living world. Pervus, earth, sun, rain, all elemental forces that laboured to produce the food for millions of humans.” Their acreage is “a kingdom”; the truck farmers are “high priests consecrated to the service of the divinity, Earth.” I didn’t expect this book to have a connection to the sanctity of the land, but it does and it’s lovely.
Curiosity and an appreciation of beauty define Selina, and she struggles to communicate these values to her son, Dirk. Selina lives in accordance with William Morris’ admonition: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so enough details–you need to read it yourself.
As I read, I kept marveling at the book’s overarching themes that are oh so pertinent today–yet, Edna Ferber wrote this book almost 100 years ago. Education; beauty; class; character; the value of hard work; the not-so-big house; native architecture; parental sacrifice and legacy; organic produce; the emptiness of the rat race; and what it means to truly live a full life, a rich life, a successful life, a life full of beauty–Ferber weighs in about it all.
Selina is of the same ilk as Laura (Little House on the Prairie), Anne (Anne of Green Gables), Francie (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), and Sayward (The Trees trilogy): intelligent, quietly confident girls who become strong-minded, empathetic, independent women–my kind of gals.