COLUMN: So you want strong women? Read Edna Ferber!

By Shelly Reuben
COLUMN:  So you want strong women? Read Edna Ferber!
Shelly Reuben

This saga recounts my quest to find a novel that could grab my attention like a hand gripping my throat (read or die!); teach me something I didn’t know (Texas had its first oil gusher in 1901); and make me feel … feel … feel.

Meet Edna Ferber (1885 – 1968).

My adventure began when, on a whim, I read a Ferber biography written by her great-niece, Julie Gilbert.

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Edna grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, home of another of my heroes – Harry Houdini. Tip to toe, Ferber was an American writer: Strong, imaginative, fiercely independent, and madly in love with the creative energy and muscular vitality of the 19th and 20th Century United States.

Ignoring advice to “write what you know,” Ferber researched what interested her, wrote about people and places alien to her experience, and with each new book, held her readers in thrall.

The locations for her novels ranged from Illinois (So Big) to Oklahoma (Cimarron) to the Mississippi River (Showboat) to Connecticut (American Beauty) to Alaska (Ice Palace), and everywhere in between. And I’m not even mentioning the plays she co-wrote with George S. Kauffman (Stage Door, Dinner at Eight, The Royal Family); her short stories; or her presence at the exclusive Algonquin Roundtable.

Let me tell you why I fell love with Edna Ferber’s novels.

I’ll start with my favorite, Showboat, published in 1926, made into a musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II in 1927, and produced as movie musicals in 1936 and 1951. The second of these two films features an unforgettably poignant Ava Gardener as Julie, a mulatto actress “passing as white” on the Cotton Blossom showboat while it steams up and down the Mississippi River.

In an era that forbids miscegenation, Julie is married to Steve, a white actor, and they are very much in love. Pete, a despicable Cotton Blossom crewman, makes unwelcomed advances toward Julie, and Steve soundly thrashes him. To avenge the rebuff and beating, Pete reports Julie and Steve to the sheriff.

Since intermarriage is illegal in the town where the Showboat is docked – “one drop of Negro blood makes you a Negro in these parts" – Steve cuts Julie’s hand, sucks her blood, and swears that he “has Negro blood” in him. The sheriff does not arrest them, but they are banished from the Showboat and from the life that they love.

Now, that’s drama.

And it’s only one of several storylines. Others include Captain Andy Hawks’ love for his boat; Andy’s detestable wife Parthy Ann; their daughter Magnolia; Magnolia’s love for an unrepentant gambler; her exile to Chicago; the tumultuous Mississippi River. And so much more.

As I read the last page of Showboat, there were tears in my eyes. It had been a long, long time – literally years – since I read a book good enough to make me cry.

Another of Ferber’s novels, So Big, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, has one of my favorite quotes in it. This is a story about Selina Peake, raised to love art and beauty by her gambler father, but forced, after he dies, to move to a poor Dutch farming community outside Chicago to work as a teacher.

Early in the book, Selina is being driven in a horse-drawn wagon to the farm where she is going to live. At first apprehensive, she looks out on the fields surrounding her new home and exclaims exultantly to the driver about how glorious the colors of the cabbage are, and how beautiful the countryside is.

The farmer, who views cabbages only as ugly vegetables torn by his relentless toil from the earth, scoffs at Selina’s comments, tells everyone what she said, and makes her the laughing stock of the community. And this is where the author shines. About the backbreaking life Selina endures, first as a farmer’s wife, then as a mother, a widow and a care-worn entrepreneur, Ferber writes:

“For equipment she had youth, curiosity, a steel strong frame... and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die…always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and Burgundy…Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

After I read the Ferber biography, I sought out her novels with mild curiosity, but nothing more. Since reading them, however, she has become something of a hero to me. Why? Because…

She loved what she did: “Writing is a lonely work but the creative writer is rarely alone. The room in which one works is peopled with the men and women and children in the writer’s imagination.”

She made her own rules: “Death-bed promises should be broken as lightly as they are seriously made.”

And my favorite Ferber quote: “I never would just open a door and walk through, I had to bust it down for the hell of it. I just naturally liked doing things the hard way.”

Starved for a good book? Read Edna Ferber. Want to applaud strong women achieving the impossible in an era when they were supposed rocking cradles and darning socks? Read Edna Ferber. Want to shed a tear or two celebrating the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary things: Read Edna Ferber.

Then tell all of your friends to read her, too.

Copyright © 2018, Shelly Reuben - Originally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY - evesun.com Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.

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