Cimarron (Edna Ferber, 1929)

The Venables are fiercely proud of their Southern roots, though having lost their plantation in the war, they’ve built a make-believe Old South in Wichita, Kansas. Sabra Venable, rather than picking one of the other Southern gentleman in the area, marries Yancy Cravat. Yancy is a restless soul. These last five years in Wichita are the longest he’s ever stayed in one place. Oklahoma, once reserved for the Indians, is being opened to white settlers. He convinces Sabra to make the “run”.

They arrive in Osage, named for the Osage Reservation adjoining the town, if “town” it can be termed. There are few even semi-permanent structures on the baked red clay plain. Yancy sets up the printing press they dragged with them from Kansas and establishes the Oklahoma Wigwam. In his editorials — which are all Yancy has a mind for, Sabra handles the business of running a newspaper — he takes a controversial stance in favor of Indian rights. They certainly stir controversy at home: the Venables will never consider those filthy savages as human.

When Osage grows a little less wild and the tents are replaced with wood and brick houses, the itch for change gets to Yancy. He wants to throw it all up, go on another run, and make a go at being a rancher in a still untamed country. Sabra, this time, will have none of it. She and her two children, Cimarron and Donna, are staying right where they are. And so Yancy leaves on his own. Under Sabra’s sole management, the newspaper expands and money flows in. Every several years, Yancy will all at once drop in like he had never gone. He had been a rancher, a Rough Rider, and who knows what else.

The children are grown now. Sabra sent Donna east to a New York finishing school. She comes back with a vaguely British accent and her eyes on landing the richest man in town, never mind that he’s already married. One year and one divorce later and she succeeds. Cimarron went in on a geology degree but dropped out when oil was discovered in Oklahoma. Sabra employed an Indian servant, Ruby Big Elk, that she paid as little attention to as she possibly could. She missed it when she and Cim got married.

Time flies by. It’s been about thirty years. Osage is a city now. The Wigwam is still a powerhouse, though Sabra isn’t so hands-on with it anymore. She’s a congresswoman for Oklahoma and a serious contender for governor, working on a platform for Indian rights. Yancy has been gone so long this time that she’s admitted to herself that he’s dead. On a campaign in an oil-field boom town, there’s an accident at one of the wells. A gray-haired old man has averted a disaster but killed himself in the process. Sabra rushes to the scene just in time hear Yancy breathe his last.

Dawn O’Hara (Edna Ferber, 1911)

A newspaper woman in New York marries young to a brilliant but unstable political writer, who becomes a mental and financial boat anchor. His flightiness turns to insanity and he’s committed to an asylum. Dawn, in ill health, goes west to rest with her family, eventually getting a job in Milwaukee and moving there. Her doctor becomes her friend and wants to become more, but Dawn refuses to abandon her husband. An uneasy peace is maintained until word comes from New York that Dawn’s husband has left the asylum and is probably searching for her.

Dawn O’Hara was Edna Ferber’s first book, and while it’s hardly autobiographical, many elements seem to have been drawn from Ferber’s real life. Particullarly the struggling writer protagonist trying to get her first book published.

Half Portions (Edna Ferber, 1919)

I was a good way through the second segment before I realized this was a collection of short stories and not a novel. I was wondering how all those new characters and settings would work back into what I had guessed was the first chapter.

Ferber’s writing style took me a while to get used to. I frequently lost the subject of sentences and had to re-read them a couple times to figure out what she was talking about. I’m not sure why — the stories are told in a simple and conversational manner. With all the 1910s and 1920s media I consume, I’m generally comfortable with the slang, but Ferber still manages to throw me a curve ball now and then.

The stories are variable. The only one I truly disliked was the one about the amnesiac veteran, because it was stupid. I enjoyed most the story about the farmer that marries poor and is forced to move to the city. I also liked the story about the all-too-temporary dropping of social barriers during the war, but I have to deduct points since it’s essentially just “The Admirable Crichton” (J.M. Barrie, 1902) (adapted for the screen in 1919 as “Male and Female”) with WWI being subbed in for shipwrecked.

I must say to Ferber’s favor that, with few exceptions, she doesn’t pull any punches. The stories conclude the way they actually would in life — nothing magically comes together to fix all the conflicts and few characters have entirely happy endings.