Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The first step in Selina’s development is her life with her father. He is a man who lives by the whims of fortune; when his gambling goes well, he and his daughter live in the best hotels, and when it goes badly, they barely get by in cheap boardinghouses. No matter where they live, however, they live every moment, savoring life as a fine meal. This ability to live is, in fact, the true legacy that Simon Peake leaves his daughter, and it becomes her most important possession. Her other legacy, after Simon is brought back to the boardinghouse dead from a bullet wound, is two diamonds and almost five hundred dollars in cash. With these, she is able to secure an education for herself and find the means of earning a living.
Simon’s death forces Selina to step into the next phase of her life, one that is to give shape to her future. She takes a teaching position in the Dutch farming country of Illinois. In her new job, she moves into an environment as different from that of her life with Simon as the fine finishing school Selina attended in Chicago is different from the small country schoolhouse where she goes to teach. When Selina goes to live with the Pools, the family with whom she is to stay in Illinois, she sees a life that is not a game but an unending job. There is no time in the Pools’s day for magic; every minute is spent making a livelihood from the soil: plowing and reaping, repairing farm tools, cooking, and mending clothes. The most striking aspect of life at the Pools’, as far as Selina is concerned, is that there is no time for beauty. Up to this point, Selina spent her time only in the search for beauty; now she finds that she has to devote herself to the problems of farming life and to teaching children whose parents are more concerned with their children’s ability in the fields than with their ability in the classroom.
Even in the midst of the drudgery of this life, however, Selina is able to find a source of beauty. Among the hardworking Pools there is an artist. Selina gives herself to the task of introducing young Roelf Pool to the magic that life can have. She nurtures his native talents at handiwork and treasures the chest that he builds and carves for her. The chest is the reminder that she keeps with her after Roelf leaves and goes to find his own life in the world outside Illinois. It is one of Selina’s triumphs that Roelf ultimately becomes a fine and respected sculptor.
Selina’s ability to find beauty even in the hard farm life becomes a guiding principle for her life. She marries a beautiful man, capable of beautiful acts. Pervus Dejong is the most unsuccessful farmer in the area, but he is a handsome man who recognizes the...
(The entire section is 1103 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
So Big, a sensitive portrayal of the struggles of Selina Peake (later Selina DeJong), is best in its first half, when its focus is on Selina; it loses some of its edge later when the focus shifts to Selina’s son, Dirk (nicknamed So Big or Sobig).
The novel begins with the ten-year-old Sobig fighting other children who mock him for his nickname but, in a manner characteristic of Ferber, the story almost immediately jumps back in time to when Sobig was two and just receiving the nickname. Then it looks ahead to the successes of the adult Dirk, and then, still within the opening chapter, it leaps back to Selina’s childhood.
Most of Selina’s childhood is spent with her widower father, Simeon Peake, a gambler whose philosophy is that life is a big show in which the aim is to experience as much as possible. Selina is able to be both creative and responsible with her father and much prefers living with him to living with her prim and proper maiden aunts in New England. However, her father is killed when Selina is nineteen, and she is forced to take a job as a schoolteacher in the Illinois countryside, teaching the children of Dutch farmers.
Selina is quite frightened at first to be on her own and to be such a small figure in a large world. She feels very much like an outsider. When she admires the look of the countryside and says that cabbages are beautiful, the farmers laugh at her. Only Roelf, the sensitive twelve-year-old son of the farmer with whom she boards, understands her. He has artistic ability, which she encourages.
After a year of teaching, Selina catches the eye of Pervus DeJong, a widowed farmer. They marry, though Selina can hardly believe that she is becoming a farmer’s wife. She fears giving up the finer things in life and becoming old before her time like the...
(The entire section is 749 words.)