You don’t hear “spinster” or “old maid” these days, much less read novels in which the heroines all fit the definition. You did though, in 1921, when Edna Ferber published her novel “The Girls,” a story that tracks three generations of Thrift women, all Charlottes, through lives absent husbands.
Belt Publishing, a small press focused on Rust Belt titles and authors, has reissued “The Girls” more than a century later. Belt’s “Revival Series,” according to its website, “brings back influential works from the past that illuminate the present and inform our future.” Belt, in its tenth year, has reissued Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White,” Willa Cather’s “One of Ours,” and Hamlin Garland’s “Main-Travelled Roads,” along with a dozen other titles.
Why “The Girls”? Why now?
Kathleen Rooney’s definitive introduction to the new edition provides a concise, piercing answer, all but making a review like this redundant. “Ferber perfectly captures the unfulfilled feeling within so many conventional people and the petty tyranny a forceful normal family member can exert,” she writes. “Through a gradual accumulation of events and encounters, Ferber shows how a bit of resistance and freethinking, especially when they are supported by other female family members, can set off a series of earthquakes that can shift a household’s—and a society’s—entire geography.”
I agree with Belt and with Rooney—the novel is worthwhile, important and relevant. All those things and more. You want to read Rooney’s introduction before discovering or rediscovering the pleasures and profits of “The Girls;” it’s a perfect entrée into this new old world.
For my money, though, the reason to blow hundred-year-old dust off this book is simpler: it’s a compelling and well-told story that deserves to be remembered rather than forgotten, that should be available rather than rare. Plus, a bonus, it captures Chicago, pre-Civil War through World War I, in ways more colorful and precise than history books. So, I enjoyed this novel for all the reasons I enjoy any good novel, and I relished a ground-level visit to the Chicago that preceded, but still bears enormous resemblance to my Chicago.
Charlotte, Lotte and Charley, our three spinsters, of course dominate this inbred narrative of family and individuality, but so too does Chicago. The omniscient narrator toggles seamlessly between the three Charlottes’ differing viewpoints, providing connective tissue between generations, but also highlighting stark discrepancies. Chicago is part of the fabric of their lives; it, like the Thrifts, expands, modernizes and absorbs heavy losses, even as it appears, on the surface, to stand in one place.
Ferber’s prose constitutes a uniquely Chicago kind of love letter, shades of Carl Sandburg and James T. Farrell, as much as Harriet Monroe, as when “the fishy smell that was Lake Michigan in March; the fertilizer smell that was the Stockyards when the wind was west; and the smoky smell that was soft coal from the IC trains and a million unfettered chimneys, all blending and mellowing to a rich mixture that was incense to her Chicago-bred nostrils.”
Indeed, the Thrifts were a South Side family, dating back to the early part of the nineteenth century, when patriarch Isaac speculated that, contrary to popular opinion, land value there would appreciate most dramatically. This portrait of a Chicago that ended around 18th Street gives context to a story in which these three women live a cloistered existence even as they peer upon an endless expanse of possibilities. Ferber writes, “Chicago’s South Side in that day was a prairie waste where wolves howled on winter nights and where, in the summer, flowers grew so riotously as to make a trackless sea of bloom.” Isaac’s story constitutes the early history of the three Charlottes, but also the early history of Chicago itself, as he arrived “to find his fortune in the welter of mud, swamp, Indians, frame shanties, and two-wheeled carts that constituted Chicago…”
The novel flashes backward and forward in time but it sets anchor in 1916, when the second of two Jesse Dicks confronts his potential involvement (and what it means to his relationship to the youngest Charlotte) in the impending war. It’s déjà vu for the eldest Charlotte, whose only real dalliance with romantic love ended with the death of her own Jesse Dick (Charley’s beau’s namesake) in the Civil War.
Like Arthur Meeker’s “Prairie Avenue” and Margaret Ayer Barnes’ “Years of Grace,” “The Girls” travels a great distance in time but not space. A high velocity of change, societal and personal, happens within the confines of a city often discredited from without but celebrated from within. “The Girls” highlights Chicago’s charms and riches (favorable comparisons to New York and great European cities dot the narrative), but also delights, at times, in the artistically apportioned flaws. In a nice sentence that precedes Nelson Algren’s oft-quoted “broken nose” line, Ferber writes, “Chicago was like a colossal and slovenly young woman who, possessing great natural beauty, is still content to slouch about in greasy wrapper and slippers run down at heel.”
Ferber, who never married or had children, knew the single-woman landscape the three Charlottes navigated. Ferber, who spent more than a decade as a Chicago resident and returned often after her departure, also knew the urban landscape upon which this novel is set. Ferber’s unique access to this story, along with the talent that ranked her among the most successful authors of her generation, results in a richly nuanced novel that, if anything, benefits from its age.
By Edna Ferber
Donald G. Evans is the author of a novel and story collection, as well as the editor of two anthologies of Chicago literature, most recently “Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.” He is the Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.