One family's destiny, year by year
The question that will burn in a reader’s mind when she finishes Some Luck, Jane Smiley’s marvelous new novel, is: How long do I have to wait to read the second volume in The Last Hundred Years trilogy?
Jane Smiley laughs heartily when asked. “Well, that’s up to Knopf,” she says during a call to her home in Carmel Valley, California. Smiley is the author of such best-selling novels as Moo and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, as well as five works of nonfiction. She says she has already completed all of the volumes in the trilogy, which covers 100 years in the life of one family, with each chapter focusing on a single year.
Smiley is emphatic in her desire that “all three [volumes] come out as soon as possible. I really do feel that it’s one thing, and it’s important for volumes one and two to be in the reader’s mind when he or she is reading volume three.”
Some Luck opens in 1920 with Walter Langdon, on the eve of his 25th birthday, walking the fence lines of his barely-making-it farm near Denby, Iowa. He is thinking about the vicissitudes of farming; the admonishments of his strict father, a more successful and established farmer who lives down the road; his love for his 20-year-old, self-possessed and talkative wife Rosanna; and his five-month-old son, Frank—the first of five children who grow into memorable individuals over the course of the novel, and, presumably, go on in the next two novels to great and less great things. Some Luck closes in 1953, with the Langdon family—responding to social and economic forces arising from the Great Depression and World War II—having mostly abandoned their hometown and moved to the far ends of the country, as so many other Americans did in that era.
The Langdon family diaspora promises much for Smiley’s exploration of 20th-century American culture and politics in future volumes of the trilogy. But in Some Luck, the family is largely homebound. Only Walter and Rosanna’s final child, Claire, for example, is born in a hospital; the rest are born, sometimes excruciatingly, at home. So, with her vivid, tactile depiction of isolated, rural Iowa farm life, Smiley has imaginatively recaptured the dangers and rewards, the play of good luck and bad luck, in a lost way of life.
“I really wanted to take these characters and follow them from babyhood to death,” Smiley says. “And I want the reader to be reminded that there’s so much that we don’t remember, that there’s so much that we don’t know.”
I really wanted to take these characters and follow them from babyhood to death.
Smiley lived in Iowa for about 24 years as a student and professor and ended up living for a while in a sort of abandoned farmhouse. “I used to take long walks in the countryside, and I used to think a lot about farming. It became an interest and continued to be an interest as I stayed in Iowa. How we get our food, who grows the food and what the food is made of is central to any culture. . . . The Langdons love the farm, but they hate the farm. They are suspicious of soybeans, but they love oats. It’s an incredible amount of work, yet they feel a great sense of accomplishment. It was a very great pleasure to write about that.”
Smiley describes in some detail the research that went into creating her trilogy—the stacks of books on her office floor and her gratitude to Wikipedia, “which is great for a novelist because it’s OK—in fact it’s better—for your knowledge of something to be partial.” Remarkably, that research is completely subsumed in the consciousness and conversations of her characters.
As a result, Some Luck moves swiftly and assuredly through just over 33 years of the Langford clan’s experiences. Smiley says the novel’s velocity arises from the quirky year-by-year approach she deploys throughout the trilogy.
“Most trilogies are groups of stories that include some of the same characters and then don’t,” she says. “I wanted to write a book about a family, but I wanted it to progress evenly for 100 years. I didn’t know of anybody who had done that before and thought it would be fun to try. That’s the nerdy side of me. I wanted each volume to cover 331⁄3 years and each chapter to be a certain number of pages. The only way I can justify that is that, in a novel with a plot, the plot gives you a form, but in a book that progresses through time, then something as simple as the divisions of the book give you form. I had to do a lot of research, but the energy that was inherent in that form really carried me along.”
Some Luck ends up being a quiet, almost self-effacing, Midwestern tour de force.
Some Luck ends up being a quiet, almost self-effacing, Midwestern tour de force. Smiley writes about farm life, family life and, suggestively, near the end, national political life. There are farming scenes, sex scenes, combat scenes and table-talk scenes.
Smiley says she began with the concept of the trilogy but ended up being swept away by the trajectories of her characters.
“There are three boys and two girls born over the course of 19 years. I wanted to be able to freely enter into everybody’s mind. So I had to be open to their most likely experiences. Frank at his age obviously is going to go off to the Second World War. So I have to be open to male experiences. And there is Lillian, who is the darling child—I’m really quite fond of Lillian—who realizes as she enters high school that she isn’t going to be everybody’s darling.
“I really did want to enter into the minds of the male characters, the female characters, the teenagers, the 20-year olds, the 40-year olds, and that meant I had to go everywhere that they might go.”
Wherever Smiley goes in Some Luck, most readers will willingly follow. Then wait, with bated breath, for her next steps.