Until I moved to Oklahoma, Texas was not high on my list of go-to places to visit. Now that I live a scant 3 hours north of Dallas, weekend trips to the Big State are a fairly common occurrence. And to my surprise, I’ve discovered that Texas is actually a fun place, and that yes, everything is truly bigger. Although apparently it’s also a Liz Taylor movie, Giant, written by Edna Ferber, had never crossed my radar until someone I follow on Twitter mentioned they were reading it. It piqued my interest, and fittingly, I started reading whilst in Dallas and couldn’t put it down.
In a nutshell, Giant is about life in Texas from the POV of an outsider. Leslie Benedict, an educated, bright young woman from Virginia, is often beguiled and perplexed by the way of life in the Big State. EF starts Giant with the end of events, introducing her cast of characters revolving around the Benedict family and their associates. The most important “character” of all that EF introduces in the first few pages is Reata Ranch, described as stretching across most of southeastern Texas. It is life at Reata that Leslie becomes accustomed to living in a new place completely foreign to her.
I loved Leslie’s character–she’s constantly asking questions of her husband about why are the things so. At times, I identified with her constant questioning, having moved from growing up in North Carolina to Oklahoma myself. But more importantly, Leslie asks the hard questions: why does her husband treat the Mexican laborers the way he does? What makes them so different? Her husband’s reaction, is one of frustration, since he finds that his new wife is challenging the status quo left and right. The book cover of the library’s copy describes Leslie as a naive society wife. Leslie is one of those folks who is extremely book smart, and while she asks questions because Texas is a completely different world than Virginia, I’m not sure I would call this disconnect naiveté.
I also enjoyed the character of Luz, Leslie’s sister-in-law who embodies everything that Leslie has a hard time understanding about Texas. Luz is not exactly the most likeable character, but Luz’s scenes were some of the most entertaining parts of this novel. While I hated her when reading Giant, I realized afterward that’s what made her a great character. Luz embodied some stereotypes, yes, especially considering how she came about her downfall, but she was a great antagonist.
The character I disliked was actually Leslie’s husband, Bick (or Jordan, since Leslie prefers calling him by his given name). Granted he’s a product of his time, but many of Leslie’s questions were met with derision, frustration, and flat-out making fun. A lot is said in the novel about how Bick didn’t settle for a Texas girl, but geez, the way he treated Leslie sometimes was really irksome. Granted, it is definitely a reflection of how women were treated, especially considering that EF writes that Leslie was considered a spinster at age 23. In the end though, I grew to tolerate Bick and found some scenes between him and Leslie to be very sweet. Bick’s dislike of Leslie’s predilection towards curiosity is juxtaposed against Jett Rink, a farmhand turned oil baron and has a bizarre infatuation with Leslie–even though Jett doesn’t deride Leslie, he on the other hand gave some creepy vibes.
There’s so much that goes on in Giant that this review is barely scraping the surface. The characters were so well-written, and there’s plenty more of them. The overarching themes of race, social, and class inequalities were prevalent, something that I really wasn’t expecting when I picked up a novel about Texas. Place is such an important part of stories, and Texas itself was like a character of how it informed these characters’ behaviors and actions. It does not hurt that EF is a great writer. Her descriptions were so vivid that it was easy to picture life on Reata Ranch. What I’m curious about though is what inspired Giant. EF grew up in Milwaukee if I’m remembering my Googlings correctly, and I couldn’t really find anything what about Texas caught her interest enough to write a novel encapsulating the pervasive “larger than life” attitude.
Giant was one of my favorite novels I’ve read this year–I hope to read more of Edna Ferber’s books in the future!