Summary

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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 unusual beauty that marks Selina. When she is subjected to the embarrassment of having the “pretty” basket she prepares for the box supper mocked, Pervus bids a precious ten dollars for her box, turning the laughter to amazement. While Selina’s life with Pervus is not marked by beauty, she found it a satisfying life. She becomes enamored of making things grow; her life becomes filled with “beautiful cabbages” and asparagus. When Pervus dies, she takes over the management of the farm and begins to build a future for her son.

With the aid of August Hempel, the rich father of Julie Hempel, one of Selina’s former classmates at...

(This entire section contains 1103 words.)

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the finishing school, Selina is able to become a successful truck farmer, to send Dirk to good schools, and to give him the opportunity to find the life of magic and beauty of which she always dreamed. At this point, Selina’s story becomes Dirk’s story. The first test of whether Dirk will be able to grasp the chance to pursue beauty occurs when he is at the University of Chicago. There he meets Mattie Schwengauer, an Iowa farm girl who represents the innocent goodness of growing things. When Dirk rejects Mattie for the social life of the fraternities, where Mattie will not be accepted, Selina receives her first disappointment. Mattie represents the naïve appreciation of life that will be the first step toward discovering the magic that life can offer. Dirk’s inability to continue his relationship with her is a foreshadowing of Dirk’s future life.

After Dirk becomes an architect, he meets Paula Arnold Storm, Julie’s daughter, whom he knew when they were children. She is now a bored, sophisticated woman married to a man old enough to be her father. It is her influence that leads Dirk to leave his career as an architect, to leave his dreams of building beautiful buildings, and to go into finance, where he is soon successful. To Selina’s continuing disappointment, Dirk lives in a world of position and show. He takes a fashionable apartment and acquires an Asian houseboy. He is, according to every conventional description, a success.

Then Dirk meets Dallas O’Mara, an artist who revels in life itself. For a time, it seems that she will be the force that will pull Dirk back to the course that Selina mapped for him. Dallas fascinates Dirk, and he is as puzzled as he is charmed by her blithe rejection of the social standards that Dirk comes to accept. A battle between the attractions of Paula’s world and those of Dallas’s world develops. The situation is brought to a crisis when Roelf returns to Chicago in the company of a French celebrity. Suddenly, the Illinois farm boy and his friend are the toast of Chicago society. Paula goes to extreme lengths to entertain the celebrated pair, and Dirk is unpleasantly surprised when he discovers that they prefer the company of Dallas. His world is further shattered when he finds that the person Roelf most wants to see is Selina.

When Dirk sees Selina with Dallas and Roelf, all three laughing together, reveling in life, he realizes the emptiness of the life that Paula represents. He also realizes that he irrevocably committed himself to Paula’s world. Ironically, Selina discovers that her own life holds the magic she always sought, for the magic lies in the seeking. Dirk, who earns his nickname by replying once to a question about how big he was that he was only “so big,” discovers that there is not necessarily any magic in success.

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