It’s tough times for our little Selina, whose gambler father was killed by a stray bullet fired by a jealous wife, as she heads off into the prairies at the age of nineteen to teach in a one-room schoolhouse and live with a Dutch immigrant family. Well, “tough times” is a bit of an exaggeration. Selina, whose imagination always runs away with her (“It was after reading Pride and Prejudice that she decided to be the Jane Austen of her time.“), had envisioned a life as a sort of transplanted Katrina von Tassel in a Midwestern version of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. As it turns out, life among Dutch farmers has a lot more to do with dried blood fertilizer and cabbages than it does Gothic horror/romance (at least for now).
It’s a fun little book…we’re still light-years away from the title character, Dirk “So Big” De Jong, who is as yet not even a twinkle in Selina’s eye. Still, I’m happy following her around in this light little story. I can’t pretend that Ferber is breaking new ground with the plot—naive young schoolteacher from the big city comes to the farmland to find that there is much her sophisticated education hasn’t taught her…gee, do you think these simple rural folk will grow to love and accept her, and that one of their strapping young lads will sweep her off her feet in rugged yet sentimental fashion? But Ferber is good at other things, particularly creating believable and interesting characters, and writing decent dialogue. She manages to write fractured English for these Dutch immigrants that sounds very believable (not like the faux Scottish brogues that Margaret Wilson slathered all over her novel….which I have to stop talking about, or my blood pressure will never drop back down to normal), and makes them quaintly amusing without (quite) turning them into caricatures.
It’s another book whose real point is obscure at the outset. I’d suspect the simplistic plot I mentioned above, but that’s clearly only going to be enough to get her married off. How does she end up a washerwoman back in Chicago, raising a ten year old boy (apparently alone)? Ferber’s given me just enough to pique my interest, and not enough yet that I can connect the dots.
What’s odd to me is that the family doesn’t speak much Dutch at home, as far as I can tell. I’ve heard that immigrant parents were pretty militant about enforcing English on their children to hasten assimilation, which makes sense in a diverse urban environment, but was it really also the practice out in a rural community where seemingly most of the inhabitants share a common ancestry? Perhaps I need to read a bit more about this prairie society before jumping to any conclusions.