I finished reading So Big by Edna Ferber and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't know much about Edna Ferber other than her name until picking up this book. I am embarrassingly impressed. She is responsible for such works as Showboat and Giant. (For a sideways look at the making of Giant, seeWelcome to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. You won't be disappointed.) She regarded herself as, foremost, a playwright. She was also was an incredibly strong woman at a time women were continuing (have they stopped?) to struggle for recognition and equality. Her persona is evident in her highly regarded, So Big.
The story centers around a woman, Selina DeJong, and her son, "So Big" Dirk. If you read the book, you'll quickly know the reason for the nickname and, in the end, you 'll understand the metaphor. Selina is a strong woman faced with a difficult and unimagined life living on a "truck farm" populated by Dutch immigrants on the outskirts of Chicago at the turn of the 20 century (that's 1800's to 1900s right?). She starts out as a school teacher whose first impression of the fruits of the farmers' labor (cabbage) as a thing of beauty. So she is very different from the parents of the children she will be educating. She becomes a widow and rears her son in a way that she hopes will steer him to the beauty in life, whatever he determines that to be. That's as much plot as I'll disclose because I highly recommend this book and hope you'll give it a chance. For those of you from the Prairie State, you'll appreciate the references to Chicago.
I took many things away from this book. For those who are about to enter a career path (e.g., high schoolers, college students) this book offers a message that you will no doubt hear at your commencement ceremonies. (And if you don't you should!) When choosing your life path, choose the path that fulfills your spirit. Life is hard enough you will work hard enough to not pursue a life that will do more than put vegetables on your table, buy you the next new thing, keep you dapper and stylish, and ensure your place as the one with the largest toy box. It is perhaps easier to do that than to seek out and create beauty. (As Everett Sloan playing the part of Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kaneputs it, "It's easy to make a lot of money. If all you want is to make a lot of money.")
For those already well down our paths, it is never too late to be part of the creation of beauty. Hard work is it's own reward, true. But hard work towards a larger and deeper purpose is redemptive. Patience with life is portrayed as so much more than a virtue in this book. Here, patience is directed to oneself, rather than others. We might try being patient with ourselves and our toils since they are directed to a full life. Many of our life's loves are not found in the short term. In a society that rewards quick results and virtue in making one's first million before 30, Ferber reminds us that virtuosity is not a goal but a life's journey. Surely a reminder for all ages.
This is an excellent book.