Over Thanksgiving this past November, our family hosted a German exchange student named Martje for the week. When my mother met her, she remarked: “You’re German but you have a Dutch name. You have the same name as the character from that book, oh, you know the one, she was wife of that Dutch farmer in the Midwest…” That vague description did not ring a bell with any of us, so I figured my mom’s faint recollection would remain buried within her own consciousness indefinitely.
About a month later, I was trolling around for books to read during the holiday break. My book group was on hiatus and I didn’t have anything pressing on my personal reading list, so I dove into that old trusty treasure trove—Pulitzer Prize winners that I had not yet had the pleasure of reading. Two esteemed female authors, Eudora Welty and Edna Ferber, jumped out at me as must-reads.
First, I read Welty’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize Winner The Optimist’s Daughter. It’s a relatively concise description of what happens when Laurel Hand, a middle-aged widow and successful businesswoman, is summoned home from Chicago to Mississippi to accompany her father through an operation on his eyes. I thoroughly enjoyed this slice-of-life view of clashing cultures, families, life experiences and timing.
Next, within the pages of Ferber’s 1925 Pulitzer Prize Winning novel So Big, I located the Dutch farmer’s wife my mom had remembered, Maartje Poole. This book was an incredibly gratifying experience. Not only did I appreciate the description of Selina Peake De Jong’s adventures as a school teacher turned farmer in the Midwest, I was able to identify the Poole family’s young matriarch as the Maartje who had remained at the fringes of my mother’s memory several decades after reading the novel. In reality, however, Maartje Poole bore absolutely zero resemblance to our young German exchange student. Even the spelling was different!