I fell in love with Jane Smiley’s writing when I first read her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, a midwestern agricultural epic that is also a retelling of King Lear. The love affair continued with The Greenlanders, a 14th-century historical saga again centered on family. Then I walked away after not finishing neither Moo, a college set novel, nor Horse Heaven, a story in the world of breeders and racetracks. But I’m hooked again having just finished Some Luck, the first in her The Last Hundred Years trilogy – 100 years in the life of an Iowan farming family. To me, this is what Smiley does best, real family story telling in all its ordinary life-ness.
The novel begins in 1920 and each chapter tells of another year in the Langdon’s life. We live with them through the hard times of the Crash and the Depression, the drought, WWII, the development of the atomic bomb, McCarthyism – all the while following the more immediately important fluctuating corn prices and watching the children grow up in small town Iowa and then scatter as young adults.
Patriarch Walter, a second generation Scots-Irish immigrant, is connected to his land, for him it represents much needed independence and security. Matriarch Rosanna, a second generation German immigrant, finds that in their six children, their simple farmhouse, their community. Oldest son Frankie sees it just as a place to strike out on his own from. Something his father just can’t understand. “That was life, as far as Walter was concerned – you surveyed the landscape and took note of what was needed, and then you did it, and the completed tasks piled up behind you like a kind of treasure, or at least evidence of virtue. What life was for Frankie he could not imagine.”
It’s the grown children that eventually draw them away from the farm for short periods, for the first time, for Rosanna. To Chicago, Washington DC, places she’d never dreamed of seeing. “At first you thought of people like Eloise and Frank and Lillian as runaways and then, after a bit, you knew they were really scouts.”
Farm life in the Midwest is never easy. Life is precarious and hard fought. Both summers and winters are brutal and the landscape is endless, but the people are good folk always willing to lend a helping hand to their neighbor. Smiley’s novel features dramatic childbirths, lengthy romances, elopements, long lives and tragic deaths that come too soon. And she sets this all alongside the gradual modernity – tractors, cars, electricity, indoor plumbing, chemical fertilizers, modified seeds – that forever changes the land, our food and the independent farmer.
Early Warning is next in this enjoyable trilogy and I’m happily settling in to life with the Langdons through their next 25 years.