By Jane Smiley
Knopf: Oct. 7, 2014
$26.95, 416 pages
Jane Smiley may well have the most diverse body of work of any American author in the past quarter century. I would argue that the consistent excellence of her work, whether in the form of novels, novellas, stories, or nonfiction, makes Smiley an excellent candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature (since that is in the news this week). While she started off with two “Midwestern” novels (Barn Blind in 1980 and At Paradise Gate in 1981), she quickly shifted gears to write Duplicate Keys (1984), a dark suspense novel about friendship and betrayal set in Manhattan. Following the powerful novella and stories in The Age of Grief (1987), Smiley took her readers to 14th century Greenland in her haunting version of a Norse saga, The Greenlanders (1988). (Smiley had been inspired by the year she spent in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar.) Following this dense Scandinavian epic, Smiley returned to domestic fiction with the novellas Ordinary Love & Good Will (1989). In just a decade, she had proved herself to be an expert chronicler of (mostly American) relationships, as well as an impressive prose stylist.
Smiley became a household name with A Thousand Acres, the story of a dysfunctional Iowa farming family based on King Lear. It became a bestseller and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It remains her best-selling and best-loved work, for good reason. It’s brilliant and unforgettable. The follow-up, Moo (1995), was a hilarious and pointed satire of academia set on a land-grant college in Iowa, based no doubt on her own experiences studying at the University of Iowa and then teaching at Iowa State University (where she was on the faculty from the early 80s to the mid-90s).
It was starting to look like Smiley had decided to make Iowa her version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Joyce’s Dublin. But she moved away, literally and figuratively, from 20th century Iowa and environs with her next book, a historical novel with a plucky heroine, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, in 1998. Smiley then explored her passion for all things equine with one of her best novels, Horse Heaven (2000). Good Faith (2003) probed the people and problems of the real estate world with good results. A short biography of one of Smiley’s literary heroes, Charles Dickens, was published the same year. She continued her nonfiction work with the insightful and idiosyncratic Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) before returning to fiction with the “contemporary Hollywood” novel Ten Days in the Hills (2007) and another historical novel, Private Life (2010), an intense character study of one woman’s life from the 1880s to World War II. Most recently, Smiley has published five YA novels (2009-2013).
Which brings us to Smiley’s latest novel, Some Luck. After nearly 20 years of fiction set elsewhere, she has returned to her most fertile ground, the farms and small towns of Iowa. The first in a planned trilogy entitled The Last Hundred Years, Some Luck follows the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa from 1920 to 1953. The novel is organized in 34 chapters, each one covering the key events of one year.
We first meet 25-year-old Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna as they try life on their own farm. In short order, children begin to arrive: the self-possessed and “enterprising” Frankie, sensitive homebody Joey, short-lived Mary Elizabeth, angelic Lillian, bookish Henry, and quiet Claire. In the early going, we are presented with an intimate view of farm life, marriage and family, and the world of the 20s and 30s. Smiley shifts the omniscient point of view among the characters, putting us in their minds and back pockets as they go about the seemingly prosaic business of living.
As a result of the book’s structure and Smiley’s roving perspective, Some Luck gets off to a slow start. Between pages 50 and 100 you’ll wonder if it’s just going to continue at the same leisurely and relatively uneventful pace (though the writing is lovely and filled with insight into a variety of characters, always Smiley’s strengths).
But as the years and “small” experiences accrue, the characters develop into people you feel you know personally, and Some Luck gains a potent cumulative effect. The rest of the book moves at a faster tempo and readers will find themselves immersed in the Langdon family’s lives. A slow opening for what will be a 1,200-page trilogy is a small investment with a satisfying payoff.
Some Luck is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath in the way the narrative alternates between a close-up view of one family’s life and a wide-angle view of the larger world they live in despite their seeming isolation in rural Iowa. Their daily lives are centered on surviving as a working farm family: planting, harvesting, coping with unpredictable crops, equipment, and weather (lightning storms, blizzards, and drought), finding their place in the local community, raising five very different children, and getting along with their English and German in-laws. (Some Luck is also a timely reminder that German and Scandinavian immigrants continued to speak their home languages well into the 20th century, even as they acculturated to the New World and became Americans, and that the various European cultures had a powerful impact on American culture that we take for granted today.)
But the Langdons are affected by events in the outside world like the Depression, World War II (in which Frank serves in Africa, Italy, and France), and the early stages of the Cold War and the communist witch hunts.
The two worlds and narrative strands come together as the children grow up. Some of them leave for big cities with their manifold opportunities, while some choose to remain closer to home. Watching the older children fall in love, choose their spouses, and begin to raise their own families is one of the simple pleasures of Some Luck.
One of the delights of Some Luck is the narrative voice, which seems pleasantly old-fashioned and folksy in its descriptions of characters and events. It is the perfect voice with which to tell this tale. There is some lovely, affecting writing here, particularly when the narrator places us inside one of the children’s minds and in the descriptions of the farm and surrounding country. The osage-orange hedge that Walter plants between the house and working farm provides a powerful symbol for the Langdons and their struggle to survive and thrive in an environment that is hostile in more ways than one.
Despite the many strengths of Some Luck, it is worth noting that the rigid structure of yearly chapters results in a paradox: we establish a close connection with most of the characters, yet at times the narrative keeps us at a distance. Events fly by with only brief notice, or a major event in one chapter is mentioned briefly, if at all, in the following chapter. This can create a temporary emotional disconnect from the narrative. As one reviewer pointed out, Smiley occasionally sacrifices in depth what she gains in breadth.
Additionally, although many pages are devoted to the life of first child Frank, he is essentially self-absorbed and aloof and thus not an especially sympathetic character with whom to travel for 30 years. While his life is indeed interesting at times, he often seems removed from it, and thus the reader is held at arm’s length once again. Other characters are more intriguing: Rosanna’s restless younger sister Eloise, who moves to Chicago and marries a communist; fifth child Henry, who begins to assume a larger role late in the novel when he is sent off to college to become a doctor but finds he prefers literature, languages, and medieval history; and two spouses, Frank’s wife Hildy and Lillian’s husband Arthur. There is reason to believe they will take on larger roles in the next two books.
Ultimately, though, Some Luck possesses a cumulative power that makes the characters and their lives resonate with you after you’ve closed the book for the last time. I suspect that this effect will gain increasing power in the second and third novels. The resulting trilogy may well end up being one of the definitive depictions of American life in the 20th and early 21st centuries.