This is my review of Some Luck (Last Hundred Years Trilogy Book 1) by Jane Smiley.
Admiration for "A Thousand Acres", a Mid-west take on the tragedy of King Lear, encouraged me to read "Some Luck", the first part of Jane Smiley's trilogy which covers a century in the lives of the Langdon family, starting in 1920 with young Walter returned from the Great War to establish himself as an Iowan farmer, with his beautiful young wife Rosanna and lively son Frank.
In what amounts to "an everyday story of country folk" American-style, if there is a main character, it is Frank. Jane Smiley is clearly intrigued by the challenge of capturing his first thoughts as a baby just a few months old – with what degree of accuracy none of us can quite remember enough to tell.
By contrast, after a promising beginning, we are continually frustrated by not being able to learn enough about what is going on in the minds of the adults. Walter and Rosanna are so absorbed in the daily grind of work, so patient, stoical and self-contained. It is never explained how Rosanna made what must have been the major step of giving up her family's Catholic faith. Even when Rosanna suffers personal crises, she manages to continue in her role of farmer's wife and mother. Yet, we know that she is repressing emotions, as indicated by her lack of care for her appearance and premature ageing, just as Walter conceals his troubles. Although this may sound gloomy, there is a good deal of low-key humour in the incidents of farm life. It could also be argued that the couple's faithfulness to each other and adherence to traditional values, combined with a self-imposed restriction on their personal gratification and ambition, are typical of many American farming communities a century ago. They are dull but worthy, leaving it to their children to fly higher, and perhaps get burned in the process.
Jane Smiley is at her best writing about the rhythms of the seasons, the intolerable heat and drought alternating with the deep snowdrifts of winter, the bitter irony of the economic depression which makes high yields pointless, the cautious acceptance of a labour-saving tractor instead of a pair of horses, the making of traditional cakes to keep the old customs going, the canning and pickling of produce. The trouble is that, without a strong plot, this can seem a little banal and repetitious to the point of tedium.
Also, when the author takes her younger characters off to experience city life, or to fight in Europe, the writing seems less authentic. The decision to devote each chapter to a consecutive year from 1920-53 becomes something of a straitjacket. I sometimes felt that incidents have been generated as padding. Perhaps because of the continual introduction of new players, either through births or romances, I began to find it hard to care about individuals who are insufficiently fleshed out, and often appear quite unconvincing – Lillian's husband Arthur being a prime example of this. Important national issues, like anti-communism or fear over a nuclear attack appear bolted on in a rather clunky fashion. The prose style often seemed almost childlike, perhaps because the author was trying to represent how some characters might have thought or expressed themselves.
Although I am sure many readers will love this book, for me it needed a stronger plot and narrower focus, such as in "The Cove" by Ron Rash which also has a rural farming theme. Yet, there is plenty of scope for more drama, as in, for instance, the uneasy relationship between charismatic, outgoing Frank and his very different, fearful, whiny, younger brother Joe who proves to be more sensitive (as in his concern for pet animals) and perhaps more fulfilled as an adult.
I wanted to admire this book but it seems a pale shadow of "A Thousand Acres".