An Appleton writer makes it “Big

Chris Chan

Appleton has produced its share of notable people. Be they politicians, entertainers, or writers, many Appleton residents (or one-time residents) have made their mark on American history and culture. Edna Ferber is one of those notables. She grew up in Appleton and eventually took a job as a reporter for the local newspaper. Ferber eventually moved away from both Appleton and journalism, and became one of America’s most popular creative writers during the early twentieth century. She socialized, and even collaborated with, some other famous authors, and was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, an elite literary society.Ferber wrote many novels, including “Giant,” “Showboat,” and “Cimarron.” Arguably her most critically respected work, however, is “So Big,” which earned her the Pulitzer Prize. “So Big” is the story of a young woman’s maturation and her constant struggle for survival in the complex worlds of rural and urban Chicago. “So Big” takes its title from the nickname of the heroine’s son (How big is my little boy? So big!).

Ferber disliked this title and only wanted to use it as a working title until she could think of something better. But the publishers liked “So Big,” and Ferber reluctantly acquiesced to the name.

Selina Peake Dejong, the heroine of “So Big,” has a checkered upbringing. Her mother died when she was young, and her father is a professional gambler. Once her father is killed in a fight, she’s forced to make her own way in the world. She has to leave the comfortable world of moderately well-off Chicago and take a job as a teacher at a small school in the country.

Most of the residents there are suspicious of everything city-related. They see many modern conveniences and innovations as evidence of the corruption of modern man. They’re all vegetable farmers, but they don’t like to eat what they produce. They prefer pork and potatoes fried in lard, which they sometimes consume at three meals a day.

At first they regard Selina with some suspicion, but they eventually come to accept her. One eligible young man falls in love with Selina, and they eventually marry. They move to a rather decrepit old farm where a good portion of the land is barren and begin to live out their days in relative difficulty and discomfort. The marriage is eventually blessed with a son, but Selina’s husband falls victim to too many years of agonizing work and dies. Selina is left a single mother, practically penniless.

The rest of the book revolves around Selina’s determination to survive and give her son the best. Selina’s life revolves around her son, and her only personal failing is her unjustified belief that he is bound for greatness.

Not to be uncharitable, but I really didn’t care much for the title character. Selina’s son is such a cold, overly ambitious little snob that it’s hard to see how an intelligent, kind, imaginative woman like Selina can feel any affection for him, even if she is his mother. He consistently puts appearances and success over people’s feelings, and the older he gets the more his life revolves around money. People who are kind and decent are frequently denigrated by the grown-up So Big in favor of individuals of lofty social status.

The only really likable, thoroughly drawn character is Selina. That’s not a complaint. Ferber makes Selina so intriguing and worthy of respect that the book doesn’t suffer from the fact that none of the other characters are nearly as interesting. My only other problem with the book is that the ending seems to be arbitrary. There’s nothing satisfying to close out the story. It’s like Ferber abruptly grew tired of writing and decided not to bother with finishing the lives of her characters.

I love discovering a new author. I intend to start reading Ferber’s other works as soon as possible. Her writing can justifiably be labeled folksy, but it is by no means dated. Ferber’s greatest interest seems to be criticizing societal ills by focusing on the lives of ordinary individuals. “So Big”‘s greatest triumph is its dual portrayal of American society and life as it is and how it ought to be.

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