A hundred years in the Mid-West, stirred through a family saga, and blending in the wide, wide world
Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ is Volume 1 of a trilogy, examining a tumultuous 100 years from just after the end of the Great War to 2020. Smiley does this by taking an ordinary family from Iowa, from mixed European settler stock, and following them forward through the generations, as children grow and become parents, and those children grow, in a world which is endlessly, rapidly in change.
Like Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning A Thousand Acres, this first volume of the trilogy shows the author as a writer with a deep connection to rural place and landscape, and to the powerful hold than ‘land’ can exert. She effortlessly shows how a story can be both deeply and uniquely personal, familial, and how the personal is always shot through with the ripples, tugs, and in-roads which the wider world and its history makes in the lives of each unique individual, as we all come from place, and live through time.
The structure of this first (and I assume the subsequent two) of the trilogy, takes each chapter looking at a year in the life of the family, exploring what is happening to them, in their relationships with each other, and their relationship with that world of which they are part. ‘Some Luck’ runs from 1920-1953
The central family is that of Walter Langdon, 25 in 1920, from Irish, Scottish, English settler heritage, a young farmer who had spent time in the Great War. His young wife Rosanna, from a German settler heritage has recently given birth to their first child, Frank.
The first few chapters present, stunningly, an inside into the mind of a small child, and the laying out of how personality is already clearly expressed. The relationships between parents, children, grandparents, the physical, rooted life in connection with the land, a sense of tradition, stability, and life unfolding in repeating spirals with change beginning to happen, faster and faster as the years roll by, is done with absolute assurance.
Things that he picked up, no matter how small, were removed from his grasp before he could give them the most cursory inspection, not to mention get them to his mouth. It seemed that he could never get anything to his mouth that he actually wanted to get there. Whatever he grabbed was immediately removed and a cracker was substituted, but he had explored all the features of crackers, and there was nothing more about them that he cared to find out
Smiley is in many ways a deceptively easy read. She tells a great story, and it’s clear this is and will be a marvellously absorbing narrative, an expose of social history, changing cultural landscapes, but she does this so apparently without effort, that there is never the sense of a character being manipulated to prove a point or to make something happen.
The influx of the wider world into the Langdon world, showing the effects of the depression of the 20’s, the move to war, the engagement of the second generation in that war, the rise of the Cold War, changing fashions in child care, the aspirations of modernity, a society where stability is giving way to rapid change, conservative capitalism versus consumerism, socialism, life post-Hiroshima and the shadow of the bomb, all this complexity is most beautifully revealed. Her book is as much educative social history as novel, without the history ever feeling like a information overload.
It was when I finished Some Luck, and sat down to think about what Smiley had done, and the manner of her doing it, that I realised how brilliantly the novel had been crafted. She is not a writer who stuns with her showy brilliance, but one who, when you stop and look at the piece, has crafted beautifully, properly, harmoniously. There is integrity to her work. And I can’t wait for volume 2, which will cover the 50’s to the 80’s, and where, I suspect, the sense of timelessness which still clung to the early part of Some Luck, will be wrenched asunder
as long as the words were not said…..(she) didn’t have to react, didn’t have to feel that thing that she was going to feel, that thing that was like an empty house with the windows smashed and the paint peeling and the pillars of the porch broken and the porch roof itself collapsing, which was something she had never seen, but became something she would never forget
Recommended, most highly recommended.
I received this as a digital review copy from the publishers