Selina DeJong spent her childhood traveling the US with her father, who made his living as a gambler in the late 1800s. He instilled in her a sense of independence so strong that after his death Selina decided to make her way as an independent woman, finding work as a teacher in a Dutch farming community on the Illinois prairie. She boarded with a family, and despite being a fish out of water she gradually drew closer to the family and especially their oldest son, Roelf. Eventually Selina married a local man, Purvis DeJong and had a son, Dirk (known by his nickname, "Sobig," taken from a game Selina often played with him as a baby). Over the years Selina transformed from city girl to farm wife, and exerted strong influence over the development of both the farm and her son.
The pursuit of beauty is a prominent theme in this book:
"It's beauty!" Selina said then, almost passionately ... "Yes. All the worth-while things in life. All mixed up. Rooms in candle-light. Leisure. Colour. Travel. Books. Music. Pictures. People -- all kinds of people. Work that you love. And growth -- growth and watching people grow. Feeling very strongly about things and then developing that feeling to - to make something fine come of it." ... She threw out her hands in a futile gesture. "That's what I mean by beauty. I want Dirk to have it." (p. 146).
On arrival in High Prairie, Selina is struck by the beauty of cabbages and other produce, much to the amusement of the hard-working local farmers. She finds beauty in most aspects of her life, and works hard to instill in Dirk that same appreciation of, and wonder for, beauty. Most of the time Dirk respectfully tolerates her chatter, seeing it as old-fashioned but endearing. But it's clear to the reader that Dirk is on his own journey to discover beauty through education, work, and relationships.
So Big won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925 and it's easy to see why. On one level, Selina's story is a compelling portrait of farm life at the turn of the 20th century, and Selina is an unusually strong woman for that era. Then Ferber weaves in additional characters and subplots to create a beautiful tapestry. Add to that the search for beauty in its many forms, and So Big becomes infused with meaning not found in many books. Highly recommended.