Early Warning is the second instalment of Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. I read the immensely enjoyable Some Luck last year and have been looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. Now, of course, I’m impatient for the final instalment, although, like all absorbing reads where you feel on intimate terms with the characters, I suspect I won’t want to reach the end. Impossible not to talk about this book without some reference to the first novel in the trilogy so if you haven’t read that and would rather not know best skip on.
It opens in 1953 with a funeral – those of you who have read Some Luck will know whose it is – neatly passing the baton on to the next generation. Frank is now on the way to becoming a wealthy man, still running the odd errand for Arthur, his sister Lillian’s husband who works for an unnamed government agency in Washington although it’s not hard to work out which one it is. Joe has taken on the family farm, living with his wife Lois and her sister Minnie in their parents’ farmhouse. Henry is set upon a path to academia, conceiving a passion for his cousin, the beautiful daughter of his determinedly communist Aunt Eloise. Claire, the youngest and her father’s favourite, seems the only one adrift after his death, eventually settling upon a secretarial course and then a somewhat ill-advised marriage. As all but one of the siblings have their own children, who in turn have theirs, the novel’s canvas broadens setting the scene nicely for Golden Age, the trilogy’s final volume.
As with the Some Luck, I found the novel a little slow to gel at first – there are many characters, even more as each generation produces the next – but within a few chapters it becomes hard to tear yourself away. Smiley weaves social change and historical events deftly through her characters’ lives: we see the covert meddling of the CIA in other countries’ affairs through Arthur whose conscience is stretched to breaking point; the ups and downs of Joe’s farming life reflect the crisis that gripped rural America in the ‘80s; the Vietnam war rumbles away in the background then comes brutally to the fore; the Cuban Missile Crisis and the ever-present knowledge of the Cold War provokes nightmares in Frank’s daughter. Cultural references are part of the novel’s warp and weft – there’s a nice one to Where the Wild Things Are, left behind in Claire’s car. If you’ve lived through some of this period, you’ll appreciate the skill with which Smiley achieves all this – the first seemingly casual mention of Reverend Jones and warning bells began to ring – it’s all smoothly done, no ‘here’s the science’ moments. Early Warning ends in 1986 with a revelation which satisfyingly resolves a niggling strand running intermittently through the novel and offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the Langdons . What an achievement! Looking up the publication date for Golden Age, I see it’s due in October – can’t come soon enough.