Places: So Big

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1924

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedHigh Prairie

High So BigPrairie. Dutch farming community southwest of Chicago where Ferber’s protagonist, Selina Peake, goes to teach in a primitive one-room schoolhouse after her gambler father is shot to death. There she lives with a farming family named Pool and experiences an environment as different from that of her life with her peripatetic father as the fine finishing school she attended in Chicago is different from the tiny schoolhouse in which she teaches. Selina’s school opens its sessions in November after the fall harvest. During the cold winters, students huddle at their pine desks, arranged close to the school’s pot-bellied stove. They write their assignments in chalk on slates, bring their own lunches, drink water from the well, and use the privy outside.

At the town’s Dutch Reformed Church, sunlight penetrating the red and yellow windows makes the faces of the solemn Calvinist worshipers look jaundiced. For recreation, families attend a dance and box supper held upstairs at Adam Oom’s general store.

Pool farm

Pool farm. Home of the Pool family, with whom Selina lives while beginning her teaching job in High Prairie. Thrifty, hard-working farmers, the Pools raise hogs and cabbages. The Pools’ life, she finds, is not a game but an unending job in which they devote every possible minute to making their livelihood from the soil: plowing and reaping, repairing farm tools, cooking, and mending clothes. The most striking aspect of life at the Pools’, so far as Selina is concerned, is the fact that there is no time to appreciate and seek beauty. Up to this point in her life, Selina has devoted much of her time and energy to searching for beauty; now she, too, must devote herself to the problems of farming life and to teaching children whose parents are more concerned with their children’s abilities in the fields than their abilities in the classroom.

A cast iron wood stove dominates the Pool’s clean but cluttered kitchen that smells of pork grease, manure, and damp wool. The house has no indoor plumbing, and family members spend considerable time cutting wood and hauling water. Their parlor walls display pictures of their ancestors; a narrow stairway leads to Selina’s unheated room, which is furnished with a huge walnut-frame bed.

DeJong farm

DeJong farm. Home of Pervus DeJong, a poor but handsome farmer whom Selina eventually marries. Its dark, damp farmhouse has a leaky mansard roof and peeling paint. From May to October, DeJong cultivates vegetables on twenty-five acres of unproductive lowland. Other farmers improve their productivity by draining their marshy fields, but Pervus refuses to change. After he dies, Selina studies horticulture books to improve the farm’s productivity and her marketing of its crops. She buys twenty-five additional acres, drains and fertilizes the land, raises hogs, and eventually sells the farm’s increasing produce to an exclusive Chicago clientele.

*Haymarket

*Haymarket. Chicago market center to which farmers travel by night to arrive before it opens at dawn, when hundreds of wagons line Haymarket Street. The market is a male-dominated environment in which the predominantly male farmers and buyers resent Selina’s intrusion and make it difficult for her sell her produce.

BibliographyField, Louise Maunsell. “From Gopher Prairie on to High Prairie: In a Novel Just Published Edna Ferber Invades the Small Town.” The New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1924, 9. Reviews So Big favorably as a novel about values to read and to remember.Gilbert, Julia Goldsmith. Edna Ferber. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Ferber’s great-niece sets the context for Ferber’s novels within her life and is not afraid to ask why the famous Americanist has gone into eclipse.Gould, Gerald. “New Fiction So Big.” The Saturday Review of Literature 137, no. 3572 (April 12, 1924): 392. A more critical review that suggests that Ferber has created a false dichotomy between art and achievement.Reed, Paula. “Edna Ferber.” In American Novelists, 1910-1945. Vol. 9 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Discusses the most important of Ferber’s works in the context of her life. Concludes that Ferber’s writings are significant for their “recognition of the contributions of women to the growth and development of America.”Shaughnessey, Mary Rose. Women and Success in American Society in the Works of Edna Ferber. New York: Gordon Press, 1977. This most thorough examination of Ferber’s works claims that women and America are the novelist’s two major themes. Ferber believed that “if women ever wake up to their potentialities . . . the world would be a better place.”
Categories: Places