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In the late 1890s, Selina Peake, a student at a posh boarding school, is informed of the death of her wealthy father, who has left her penniless as a result of a botched business deal. Since the proud Selina refuses all offers of charity, August Hempel, the kindly father of Selina's best friend, Julie, obtains a teaching position for Selina in New Holland, a tiny Dutch farming community outside Chicago which has remained virtually unchanged for seventy-five years. In New Holland, Selina takes a room in the home of Klaas Pool, a crude farmer who scoffs at Selina's idealism and eye for beauty, and his overworked and miserable wife Maartje. Selina finds a kindred soul in Klaas and Maartje's son Roelf, a bright, but troubled adolescent who is unable to attend school because he must work on the farm. After discovering that Roelf has a talent for music, Selina gives him nightly piano lessons and encourages his artistic leanings, gradually leading him away from juvenile delinquency. At a charity auction, Selina catches the eye of the town's most eligible bachelor, Pervus DeJong, and later accepts his proposal of marriage. Roelf is devastated to learn that Selina, who represents to him the beauty of the world outside his hated hometown, is to marry a lowly truck farmer. However, Selina consoles him by explaining that she needs both "emeralds" and "wheat" in her life, emeralds being those people, like Roelf, who appreciate and create beauty, and wheat, those who work the land, providing the necessities of life. Selina settles into the laborious routine of a farmer's wife and gives birth to a son Dirk, who, as he grows, earns the nickname "So Big." Dirk soon displays signs of being an emerald in the rough, and although Pervus, who has never fully understood his wife, is mildly disapproving, Selina encourages her son's nascent artistic talent. Maartje dies and, shortly after, Klaas makes plans to wed the simpering Widow Paarlenberg. The grieving Roelf decides to leave New Holland forever and tearfully bids Selina goodbye. When Dirk is eight years old, Pervus dies from the strain of his hard work, and Selina, refusing offers of help from her neighbors, labors to keep the farm going on her own. Much to the shock of the denizens of conservative New Holland, Selina and Dirk travel unescorted to the Chicago Haymarket to sell their produce, but no one will buy from a woman. When all seems lost, Selina runs into her old friend Julie, now a divorced mother of two, and August, who offers to invest in Selina's proposal to grow exotic vegetables. Selina's "DeJong" asparagus is a huge success and, ten years later, she proudly sends Dirk off to college to study architecture. After college, Dirk begins work as a draughtsman in an architectural firm and maintains his involvement with his childhood sweetheart, Julie's spoiled daughter Paula. Paula, a manipulative social climber, pushes Dirk to earn more money and later convinces him to forgo his dream of becoming an architect in order to attain more immediate financial success. Dirk accepts a job in sales and promotion arranged for him by Paula, greatly disappointing Selina, who demonstrates her dismay by no longer referring to him as "So Big." Later, Dirk falls in love with talented artist Dallas O'Mara, who cares nothing for money and social status, and proposes marriage. Although she is fond of him, Dallas refuses, declaring that she could never marry a man whose hands are unscarred by real work. Roelf, now a renowned composer, has a triumphant return to Chicago, where he visits Dallas, an old friend from Paris. Accompanied by Dirk, Roelf takes Dallas to his reunion with Selina, and the two women, very much alike, become friends. After Roelf and Dallas leave, Dirk, fearing that he has lost both of the women he loves, expresses his dismay at how his life has turned out. However, Selina takes him in her arms and, calling him "So Big," reminds him that it is never too late to pursue his dream of creating beauty.