Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Unlucky Number Seven

I admit I expected to hit a wall at some point during this challenge, but I did not anticipate that it would come as early on as book #7. I've come down with pertussis (AKA whooping cough), and I'm going to take the low road and use it as an excuse for the delay. It's hard to read 100 pages a day when your body is so tired that you fall asleep ten pages in. But I'm going to look on the bright side; rather than focus on the debilitating cough that leaves me gasping for air every time it strikes, I'm going to use this experience as a way to better understand the world in which many of the characters from these early Pulitzer books lived. After all, the first widely tested vaccine for pertussis was released in 1925, the very same year that Edna Ferber's So Big won the big prize.

So Big is the story of a young woman of limited means and unlimited dreams. Selina Peake is raised by her gambling man of a father to look at life as a series of adventures, but his premature death leaves her a young woman of nineteen with some hard choices to make. She chooses wisely, and leaves her expensive and aimless life in Chicago to teach the children of Dutch immigrant farmers in a little school in the Illinois countryside. Inevitably, she falls in love with one such farmer, Pervus DeJong, a man whose physical prowess just about matches Selina's mental acuity. Ferber's description of him is every bit the gentle giant to Selina's petite figure.

Pervus and Selina seem a good fit for one another at first. He is strong, she is slight. She is quick-witted, he's a bit slow (but not for lack of effort). I was hoping that he would protect her with his physical strength, and that she would enlighten him with her intelligence and general zeal for life, and they would make a dynamic duo and live a long happy life and have many adventures together. But work on the farm proves to be too much, and Pervus is too obstinate in his adherence to traditional gender roles. It quickly becomes clear that as Mrs. DeJong Selina's life is to be less an adventure and more backbreaking work and disappointment. She has her son, Dirk, and another stillborn baby, and after only a precious few years together Pervus dies, leaving her alone and nearly destitute with a young child and a poorly-run farm to manage.

Selina is blessed with uncommon intelligence and integrity. Of the seven winning novels we've read so far, I believe she is the most admirable character - edging out even Deborah Gale of His Family.  With hard work, ingenuity, shrewdness, and a bit of good luck, she succeeds in turning her husband's failing farm into a thriving agricultural operation. She is self-reliant, resilient, honest, and she doesn't especially care what others think of her behavior, so long as she does what she believes to be right and true. She sends her son to college, and on to professional school where he takes a degree in architecture. She leads a good life, full of hard work and comfort in equal measure. And through it all she is able to find the beauty that exists in the daily activity of human lives - whether it's a field bursting with cabbages planted by a hardworking immigrant farmer, or a young boy's masterful carving of a wooden chest. She possesses this unique ability.

Her son, Dirk, is quite another story. (She likes to call him "Sobig" after the way she used to ask him as an infant, "How big is the baby? So big!") Throughout the novel he is constantly caving into peer pressure and abandoning things he shouldn't - whether it's ditching an unorthodox college friendship that raises eyebrows among the popular crowd, or leaving his career in architecture for the more lucrative and infinitely less creative life of a banker in order to please a self-absorbed gold-digging woman. Although he achieves a certain kind of success, he is somehow a quiet disappointment at every turn.

Dirk DeJong seems like a man with endless potential, he is smart and capable and handsome and charming, and I *SO* wanted to like him for the sake of his mother, but in the end he is weak and shallow, utterly lacking in character and integrity. He lives his life for the superficial. I found myself thinking on more than one occasion, "He doesn't know that he needs to suck the marrow out of life!" Clearly, he never managed to read Walden in spite of all the years he spent in college. Or if he did he missed the point. Which would be so very like him.

The book closes with Dirk's realization that his superficial life, with all his correct belongings in their correct places in his correct apartment, will never actually get him what he wants most. In spite of living large, his life is not so big after all. It's actually a bit small and sad, especially when compared with his mother's.

I enjoyed this book. Edna Ferber (who is from Kalamazoo, Michigan by the way) does an excellent job of developing rich characters about whom I cared deeply by the end of the book. I do wish that perhaps a little bit more time had been dedicated to Dirk, I felt like the ending was abrupt, but perhaps that was her point. When you realize you're not leading a fulfilling life - and that it's entirely your own fault - well, can there be a more abrupt realization?

Next on the list is Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis. Hopefully I'll be back on schedule. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and cough like it was 1925.


Emily said...

Every time I read your take on these novels, it makes me want to read them too. Well, except for that one you didn't like - the guy that had won twice, wasn't it?
Anyway, I'm really enjoying your blog and I hope you feel better quickly!

Maria said...

Thanks Em! I'm glad you're enjoying our journey. Thanks for reading along with our blog. Booth Tarkington's books are totally skippable. There are far too many better novels out there to spend time on!