by Edna Ferber. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1924. 12mo. vi+360 pp. $2.00.
THE special quality that, distinguishes Miss Ferber’s short stories is enthusiasm about life — not merely the interest in people that the writer of fiction must have if he is to write at all, but an intense and honest enthusiasm about all sorts of men and women, and particularly about plain men and women who are living profitable lives in their own way, without too much thought for the conventionalities and respectabilities of average mankind. One of her characters in this novel, when invited to dine at the ‘ smartest club in Chicago,’ replies: ‘Oh no, I hate those arty little places. I like dining in a hotel full of all sorts of people. . . . I like ‘em mixed up, higgledy-piggledy. A dining-room full of gamblers, and insurance agents, and actors, and merchants, thieves, bootleggers, lawyers, kept ladies, wives, traveling men, millionaires — everything.’ But the same character says, on another page_ ‘ I do demand of the people I see often that they possess at least a splash of splendor in their make-up. Some people are nine tenths splendor and one tenth tawdriness . . . and some are nine tenths tawdriness and one tenth splendor. But some people are all just a nice even pink.’ The two speeches express well the author’s predilections: for all people, just because they are human beings; and for some persons, because they are in some respect natural, free, and worthy.
In So Big Miss Ferber has drawn the portrait of a mother who, as she might say, is nine tenths splendor, and of a son who is ‘just a nice even pink.’ The mother, Selina DeJong, is a country school-teacher who, marrying a handsome but stupid Dutch truck-farmer and early left a widow, sets to work to make a living from the business in which her husband has failed. Through pluck and intelligence she succeeds. The scenes are laid chiefly near the town of High Prairie, a Dutch neighborhood not far from Chicago, and the descriptions of the inhabitants and their mode of life are both interesting and instructive. But the book is really the story of Selina who, daughter of a professional gambler, takes life as it comes and finds that in the end everything, bitter as well as sweet, has gone to enrich it; and of her son Dirk, or ‘So Big,’ who, achieving success too easily, finds that he is not ‘so big’ after all. The narrative almost presupposes a sequel, in which Dirk, who has dodged life will at last meet it as his mother has done.
The author can lay on local color with great skill and can sketch a character, like that of Aug Hempel, for example, in masterly fashion; but — and perhaps her newspaper training is to be blamed — she is rather too much addicted to what is nowadays called ‘effective writing,’ the latest manifestation, perhaps, of what used to be known as ‘fine writing.’ Her short sentences and colorful adjectives and strong nouns give at times an effect of strain; and her insistence upon her heroine’s charms is an even worse defect of art. But these faults, if they are faults, are the natural result of her enthusiasm for her story and her personages.
The book as a whole is a very interesting and wholesome study of American life and offers a valuable antidote to some current tendencies, both in fiction and in the world.
R. M. GAY.