A new novel by Jane Smiley is always something to look forward to but the premise of Some Luck is a particularly attractive one. It’s the first in a trilogy which tells the story of an American century reflected and refracted through one family – the Langdons – beginning in 1920. Each chapter of this first instalment follows a year in their lives ending in 1953. For me, this is an irresistible structure: something to get your teeth into.
Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna have farming in their blood: he’s from Irish stock, she’s from German. Their parents live close by the farm which Walter has stuck his neck out and bought at the age of twenty-five. The novel opens with a striking image of an owl flying out of a dead tree, clearly its nesting place, then swooping down to seize a rabbit. Walter realises that the tree he’s been thinking should be cleared would make lousy firewood and now he knows it houses a predator which will rid him of a pest or two he can leave it: the perfect solution for a farmer. He and Rosanna raise a family: Frank, smart, opportunistic and single-minded – determined to get out into the world; Joe, soft-hearted but quietly steady with a talent for managing livestock and crops; Lillian, a beauty from birth, empathetic and maternal; Henry, always with his head in a book; and Claire, the late child and her father’s favourite. By the time we get to 1953, a new generation has been born: Walter and Rosanna are grandparents many times over and several of their children are far from home, one of them engaged in work their parents never could have imagined.
This isn’t the first time Smiley has told the story of an Iowan farming family. Her Pulitzer prize-winning A Thousand Acres was a re-imagining of King Lear set on an Iowan farm. The Last Hundred Years Trilogy has a much broader canvas and will take the Langdons as far as 2020. The pace is slow to begin with, but who cares when you know that you’re in for three novels of expert storytelling. Smiley takes her time building her characters, placing them firmly in the landscape while deftly slipping in world events and social change, from the Crash of ‘29 and the Depression which followed it to clashes between Walter and Joe about changes in farming methods. Even those new-fangled Band-aids get a mention. It’s all beautifully done, never clunky and without the clutter of literary fireworks. As the children and their extended family move out into the world the canvas broadens: Rosanna’s sister becomes involved in communism, Frank comes into himself in the Second World War, Lillian’s sudden choice of a husband takes her to Washington DC and into the fringes of government. It ends in the Cold War years with a crisis in the heart of the family leaving you wanting much more just as the first in a series should. The next two instalments have already been written which leaves me fascinated to know how Smiley has imagined the years between when she finished writing her trilogy and its end in 2020.