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Reviews Fri Jan 10 2014

Book Review: So Big

Chicago's Favorite Chicago Books is a series of reviews of fiction by Chicago authors. These books are chosen by YOU (and, well, me). To suggest a title I should review, comment here, tweet me @edenrobins and/or use the hashtag #faveChicagobooks!

SoBig.JPGI'm pretty embarrassed about this, but for several impressionable teenage years, I read and reread Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead at least six times. Now, in high school I was about as bloodied a bleeding-heart liberal as you could get, dubbed a "feminazi" by male classmates (yes really), a rabid recycler, a fervent believer in philanthropy. So please believe me when I say that I never bought into her manic, hyper-conservative DIY OR DIE mentality. But there was something about the way Rand discussed integrity and the satisfaction of good work and the respect for beauty over greed that, well, for better or worse, it stuck with me.

Man oh man, I wish I had had known of Edna Ferber back then. Edna Ferber is Ayn Rand for people with a soul. Or maybe that's too harsh? Let's go with "conscience" instead.

Did you know Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925? That most of her books were made into well-known musicals and movies? Showboat, for example? Cimarron? Giant? I was ashamed I had never heard of her, and then once I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning book So Big, and was stunned by its awesomeness, I figured maybe I was the only ignoramus among my peers. But... of my admittedly small sample size of five, zero had heard of her. So I am considering this review my anti-Rand good deed of the day. Read this book.

So Big will trick you with its sly, subtle unpredictability. On the surface it seems like a story you've read (or at least heard) a million times before. Young girl becomes an orphan, is forced into an alien and difficult living situation with strangers who don't understand or appreciate her. You think you know what's going to happen. Sure, she's got pluck and grit and a quirky spirit now, but it will undoubtedly become squashed by hard livin', leaving her a dried up husk of a woman. Only... it doesn't. Her life changes drastically -- from wild adventure and travel with her fast-living, gambling father, to hard labor and hyper-traditionalism on a Dutch cabbage farm on the outskirts of Chicago. And though her external beauty fades, heroine Selina Peake De Jong continues to blossom on the inside, where things really count. She continues to find adventure in whatever life brings her.

But the title would have us believe this story isn't about her (or is that another sly trick?). It is about her son, Dirk De Jong, nicknamed "So Big" for a game she used to play with him as a toddler. Selina wants the world for So Big, and she makes his happiness her life's work. But here again the book surprises us. Because although So Big ends up having everything a man could ever desire... it is Selina who has lived the full life, who sees beauty and artistry wherever she goes. Dirk does not have her poet's soul -- he eschews any potential for artistry in favor of money and comfort.

I hope I didn't give too much away. It doesn't matter, though. This is not a book ruined by spoilers. It is a book you will borrow from the library, and then you will buy yourself an early edition hardback so you can read it whenever you want.

Ferber's characters are complex, and although they are deeply moral, they never serve as a vessel for the author's moralization (cough, Ayn Rand, cough), nor do they slip into saccharine platitudes. Some of her sentences were so beautiful I wished I had never read them, just so I could read them again for the first time. She substitutes warmth and empathy and pathos for Rand's cold, calculating Objectivism, and I dearly wish she was as widely read. I think I'll start by checking out the rest of her books from the library.

Edna_Ferber.jpgEdna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1885, and spent the first 12 years of her life in Chicago before moving to New York in her later years. Her novels tend to feature strong female protagonists, and several theatrical and film productions have been based on her works, including Show Boat, Giant, Ice Palace, Saratoga Trunk, and Cimarron. She won a Pulitzer Prize for So Big in 1925 and was a member of the Algonquian Round Table. Ferber never married, had no children, and was never known to have engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship. She died of stomach cancer at the age of 82.

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