March 21, 2018
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck, is the first part of her announced series, The Last Hundred Years trilogy. As the trilogy’s name suggests, Smiley intimately—and exactingly—portrays the changes that the last hundred years have brought to our everyday lives, from kerosene lamps and horse-drawn plows to the dawn of artificial fertilizer and store-bought infant formula.
The story opens in rural Iowa in 1920, on the eve of Walter Langdon’s 25th birthday. It had been a good year—he’d broken even. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Walter left his family’s farm and bought his own, where he and his young wife, Rosanna, will raise their children—Frank, Joe, Mary Elizabeth, Lillian, Henry, and Claire. Life is predictable in those early years. They visit extended family often; Walter depends on horses Jake and Elsa to tend the farm; Rosanna churns the best butter around and sells it to the country store in town.
While Smiley doesn’t glorify bygone days, she does gently point out examples of how better living is not always achieved through chemistry, so to speak. Life on a farm, particularly in earlier eras, was fraught with constant danger, and no one could be more keenly aware of this than Rosanna. While she leaves nothing within her control to chance, she still embodies the somewhat rough and tumble style of old-fashioned, rural parenting. This is sharply contrasted in later years by her daughter Lillian’s child-rearing methods, regimented and literally by-the-book. Lillian’s children are born in a city hospital in an era when breastfeeding is considered somewhat unseemly and not particularly healthy, and she bottle feeds each one from day one. Yet in a massive storm over Thanksgiving weekend, she is left to worry that the electricity won’t come back in time for her to prepare tomorrow’s sterilized bottles.
Some Luckshines where its characters are concerned. Each member of the family is lovingly described, fleshed out, seldom predictable, and in turns infuriating and utterly sympathetic; lifelike, in other words. Its portrayal of poverty and the chronic depression it can cause is another poignant master stroke. During the Depression, when life on the Langdon farm could scarcely get any harder, Walter—the stalwart patriarch—almost falls down the well. Before he can devise a strategy to lift himself out of danger, he contemplates letting go instead. “The farm was a bust. He had no money, and his land was worth eleven dollars an acre, maybe. The tractor was worth less than he paid for it, not because there was anything wrong with it, but because there was no one who could buy it from him.”
Frank, perhaps the story’s most intriguing character, is a mystery to his family from the day he is born. “He’s not like anyone in our family that we know of,” his mother tells his college girlfriend, who is distraught at not having heard a word from him since leaving to fight in WWII. He has a brilliant mind and superhuman determination—along with the aloofness and stubborn streak that often accompany those qualities. Frank is perfectly capable—of anything, it seems.
The novel ends in 1953, and promises a second book set both back at the Iowa farms and in the cities where some of the Langdon children have settled with their families. Some Luck, each chapter a year in the life of the Langdon family and their kin, succeeds in immersing the reader in their lives, even as it skims over some of the more precipitous events. Life goes on for the Langdons, as it does for all of us, though it usually takes some luck to survive intact.
Smiley’s book is available for purchase at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, 387 Perkins Rd. Ext., Memphis, TN.
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