Buttered Side Down

August 30, 2010

I’ve been on a crazy Edna Ferber kick for the past week, starting with a reread of the Emma McChesney books. Up until last week, my knowledge of Ferber was restricted to Emma McChesney, Dinner at Eight, and Giant, so I wasn’t surprised to find that she doesn’t always feel called upon to produce a happy ending, but there’s “Let’s not have a happy ending this time,” and there’s “Buttered Side Down is kind of a perfect name for this collection of stories.” Although, to be fair, the collection Cheerful — By Request is approximately as depressing.

The twelve stories in Buttered Side Down don’t have traditional happy endings, although about half of them end on a positive note. Or–I don’t know, it’s sort of a matter of opinion.
There are a couple of straightforward tearjerkers, one of which (“Meymeys From Cuba”) is the least successful story in the book. There’s also one sort of straightforwardly almost-romantic one (“Sun Dried”), but for the most part Ferber seems to enjoy subverting the expectations of her readers. The man and woman who have a heartfelt conversation on the steps of their boarding house at midnight don’t fall in love — the girl doesn’t, anyway — and the homesick man and woman do go home, but they find that home isn’t what they want anymore. And they don’t fall in love either.

My favorites are “The Man Who Came Back,” where Ferber applies an Alger plot to an ex-con without minimizing his original crime, and “The Kitchen Side of the Door,” where you get the most unambiguous happy ending of the book, as well as some very beautiful and some very unpleasant images, both unsettling.

Other books of stories by Ferber that I’ve enjoyed recently include Half Portions and Cheerful — By Request.



  1. I’ve read Show Boat, Giant, So Big, and Cimarron several times each over the years, and I love Ferber in the long form. I have no idea why I’ve neglected her short stories all these years, but I intend to rectify that immediately.

    • I’m a little bit wary of her novels — I’ve only read one, her first, and it was kind of silly, but I know the later ones aren’t. Is there a particular book you’d recommend?

  2. I’ve always been particularly fond of So Big–it won her the Pulitzer, and the character of Selina is probably the strongest of her many strong female characters. Ferber herself was very attached to the book and the main character. (I also like Showboat; it’s my second favorite.)

  3. Finished this yesterday, and really liked it. Pearlie Schultz, who is featured in a couple of the stories, was a very satisfying character. “That Home-Town Feeling” struck a chord with this former small-town girl, and “Where The Car Turns at 18th” made me cry a little.

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