What can a book about three generations of unmarried women in Chicago, set between the Civil War and World War I, originally published over 100 years ago and now out in a new edition by Belt Publishing, have to say to a contemporary resident of our city? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Its author, Edna Ferber, was best known to me, prior to reading this book, as a frequent crossword puzzle clue and for writing the source material for the film Giant, starring James Dean, and the musical Show Boat. Ferber’s The Girls should be considered alongside Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt as trenchant evocations of early city life in the Midwest.
The Girls by Edna Ferber
Belt Publishing, paperback, 269 pp., $20, beltpublishing.com
Charlotte Thrift is the eldest daughter of a businessman in mid-19th century Chicago. The city at that point isn’t much more than a rough-hewn settlement lacking even paved streets. Young Charlotte is rescued after falling into the Chicago River by a dashing but lower-class boy named Jesse Dick. Their courtship is a secret Charlotte keeps until Dick is conscripted to fight for the Union in 1862. Their public kiss as he departs for war is a scandal she will not live down for the rest of her days.
Charlotte’s niece, also named Charlotte but called Lottie, is the daughter of her younger sister, Carrie. The three women live in a grand house on Prairie Avenue, having moved south from Wabash and Madison as the city grew and was rebuilt following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Carrie’s husband has abandoned the family after embezzling funds from the real-estate business started by his father-in-law, leaving Carrie to pick up the pieces. She runs the house and what remains of the business with an iron fist, bullying her sister and daughter to do her bidding rather than living their own lives. Lottie is single for less scandalous reasons than her beloved aunt. She feels a duty to take care of the two elderly women though she dreams of a career, travel, and adventure.
Charley—the third Charlotte—is Lottie’s niece, the daughter of her older sister, Belle. A free spirit, Charley is the envy of both her aunt and great-aunt. She scandalizes and thrills them with her nightlife tales. They live vicariously through her and believe desperately that she will not repeat their own sorry fate. But when Charley brings home a young poet named Jesse Dick, destined to die in World War I as his namesake uncle died fifty years before, the vicious circle closes on all the Charlottes.
One of the central themes here is voiced by Charley in one of her many reproaches to her aunt over being controlled by her own mother, “You can’t live somebody else’s life without your own getting all distorted in the effort.” No matter how hard the three heroines struggle to break free and assert their own wills, their society and immediate family will not let them have their way. Through the prism of three generations, Ferber vividly describes the myriad obstacles faced by the women of her time. Her own life roughly mirrors Lottie’s and her grasp of city geography and the particularities of the striving middle-class in a growing metropolis read as firsthand experience. It was a revelation, for instance, to learn of the ubiquity of electric cars in 1910s Chicago. Primitive driverless carriages, they would soon be left in the dust by the internal combustion engine. But Ferber’s descriptions of Lottie’s frequent drives from Prairie Avenue in what is now the South Loop to Hyde Park or up and down Michigan Avenue will be recognizable to any driver in 2023. Her Chicago and ours are more the same than they are different.
While the racial dynamics of the novel, especially between white and Black people, will make the contemporary reader wince, Ferber can’t be faulted for inaccuracy. Carrie’s complaints about Black people settling on her beloved south side in the early 20th century as part of the Great Migration would be echoed fifty years later during the white flight era. Any progress we’ve made in this city is dwarfed by the many ways we haven’t changed at all. A quick glance at a local paper without noting the date will yield stories that read current in 2020 or 1920.
At times the machinations of Ferber’s plot are too on the nose. Having all her heroines share a name and two of them share lovers with the same name is a bit much; hammering the point that they’re reliving the fate of the ones before. There are baffling omissions as well. The Great Chicago Fire is mentioned just once in passing as the plot fast-forwards between Charlotte’s youth in the 1860s and Lottie’s adulthood in the 1910s. For a novel that nails Chicago in ways few I’ve read, it’s very odd that an event that entirely transformed the city is so absent.
Nothing much actually happens to Charlotte or her namesakes, but hope remains till the end: “. . . and every now and then I get the feeling—that unsettled feeling as if something might still happen in my life,” Charlotte observes late in the novel. This is one of those books that nails setting and character so well that plot is mostly beside the point.
I thought of Sister Carrie and Babbitt often while reading this book. Ferber splits the difference with clearer prose and keener insight than Dreiser managed, while incorporating some of the same dry humor that Lewis used to describe midwestern strivers. The mix of provincialism and material success is on display in our city to this day. The suspicion with which the Charlottes and their circle view the East Coast, not to mention Europe and the rest of the world, also reads true. As do the tensions between the south and north sides of Chicago. As a longtime resident, it was a breath of fresh air to read this city depicted as something other than a montage of cliches. Blessedly, Wrigley Field has yet to be built as the novel closes, just after the Armistice.
Whatever its flaws, The Girls deserves pride of place on a very short shelf of books that show Chicago, warts and all, as the city in which America works out its most intractable issues. Charlotte, Lottie, and Charley are mirrors that reflect the truth even if we’d rather look away.
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