“You can’t run away far enough. Except you stop living you can’t run away from life.”

Maartje Pool, for an overworked and thoroughly task-focused farmer’s wife, offers a very philosophical perspective to Selina on the eve of her wedding.  A true one, too, I’d say.  Selina’s sudden panic at the thought of tying herself to farm life in High Prairie forever is certainly understandable, but the heart has its reasons, I suppose.

In all honesty, I can understand her heart’s reasons in this case, as she prepares to marry the sturdy and kind Pervus De Jong.  He steps in to spare her embarassment in public in a surprisingly sweet way, and then pays her for reading lessons.  He’s a simple man, whose run of bad luck (whether we consider crop failures, the deaths of his first wife and their only child, etc.) is shockingly consistent.

I do like Edna Ferber’s work to keep the story grounded in reality. The courtship of Selina and Pervus is a bit too easy, but even there, Ferber offers a lot of context (especially in the attitudes of the Pool family, including Roelf, the 13 year old boy who is not-so-secretly in love with Selina) that keeps it from being a fairy tale.  And Selina’s life after the wedding is the rough, exhausting, never-ending drudge of a life that every woman in the community seems to lead.  These Great Lakes farms do not bear the storied amber waves of grain…they are lucky if good cabbages can be produced.  And Pervus is never lucky.

He refuses to take his wife’s advice on planting—her experience in it is all book learning, of course—preferring to trust the same techniques and practices his father used (and perhaps his father before him).  But he’s not a monster.  Pervus is exactly who he always was—a simple, kindly man who sincerely loves his young wife (and their newborn son, Dirk), but someone who has no concept, even, of the life that Selina wants to lead.  She is desperate to go back to “culture” and “society”, but she can’t even get Pervus to repaint their wagon.  They may be in love, but this was a poor match.

I don’t know if the tale is intended to be cautionary, but it certainly serves that purpose.  Selina, a young thing and full of passion, thinks that the rapid beating of her heart when Pervus is near will be enough.  I don’t think it will.  Even if she is loyal to him, and he to her, they will never really fulfill each other’s needs.  He will never be interested in the books she reads (let alone read any himself, for them to talk about), and she will never be the homemaker that Maartje Pool is.  I hate to be a downer about this…to say that love isn’t the all-conquering force that pop music and Hallmark want us to believe it is.  There’s no other way to account for the reality of relationships, though.

Oddly, this book is titled So Big, which, as noted before, is the nickname young Dirk De Jong gets as a toddler (his mother asks him “how big Baby is” and gets that stock response).  So, where will Selina, our central character for the book’s first 110+ pages, disappear to?  I know that novelists play with the idea of which character is the real protagonist; an idea perhaps most famously stated in the opening line of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”).  But given the otherwise straightforward nature of this book’s plot, it’s hard to see why and how Dirk “So Big” De Jong will supplant his mother—and honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine being able to transfer my emotional investment in her to him unless it’s done really skillfully.  We’ll see.

Oh, and I have to mention that the brief passages we get of her schoolteaching (before she’s married) are horrifying.  Maybe all teachers at the time really did demand their students to “parse” (or “diagram”) sentences on the fly.  But it strikes me as a rotten way to teach—people reminisce about the good old days, sometimes, but educationally, I ‘d say it appears to me we should be glad to get well clear of 1890s public education (at least in rural areas).

2 comments on ““You can’t run away far enough. Except you stop living you can’t run away from life.”

  1. Elka says:

    I read So Big in 9th grade, back when I actually had time to read books! It was decent, but seriously depressing to a junior high romantic.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      As a non-junior high semi-romantic, we’ll see how I enjoy it. 🙂 It’s nice to know someone else has read it–I hope you’ll chime in on my posts and let me know how my impressions match yours (or don’t)!

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