'Some Luck' kicks off Jane Smiley's chronicle of an Iowa farm family

The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'A Thousand Acres' goes back to the farm.

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley, Knopf Doubleday, 416 pp.

 Fans of old-fashioned family sagas featuring historical sweep are in – ahem – some luck. Jane Smiley’s new novel, the first volume of an ambitious planned trilogy that will eventually span a full century, covers more than three decades in the lives of an Iowa farm family, from 1920 to 1953. With a chapter devoted to each and every year, Some Luck chronicles the births and childhoods of Rosanna and Walter Langdon’s six children, the deaths of various close relatives, and the daily fortunes and misfortunes of some two dozen characters. This is set against the backdrop of a country buffeted by adversity and change, including the aftermath of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the postwar baby boom, the Red Scare, and the beginning of the Cold War. Smiley’s sympathetic characters weather punishing droughts and frigid winters but also enjoy progress when tractors replace horse-drawn plows, indoor plumbing replaces outhouses, and electricity replaces kerosene lanterns.

"Some Luck" gives you a sense of the breadth and arc of lives and the unstoppable march of time, as well as a vivid picture of the American population’s shift from country to city life. Like "A Thousand Acres," Smiley’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning recasting of Shakespeare’s "King Lear," "Some Luck" is set on a family farm in Iowa and conveys a deep understanding of both the endless work and worries of agrarian life and the foremost question among children raised on the land – whether to stay or go.

But unlike "A Thousand Acres," which is narrated by the eldest of farmer Larry Cook’s three feuding daughters, the third-person narrative of "Some Luck" shifts focus among various members of the Langdon family, including – sometimes jarringly – its newest, youngest additions. Don’t expect shades of James Joyce’s modernist "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in Smiley’s high chair’s-eye views; her point, which she conveys in straightforward prose, is that children are born with distinct personalities.

Smiley was a longtime professor of English and creative writing at Iowa State University, and her novels reflect this academic background. In addition to the Shakespearean underpinnings of "A Thousand Acres," "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton" (1998) is her answer to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," while "Ten Days in the Hills" (2007) is her raunchy "Decameron," relocated to Hollywood. "Some Luck" is her second epic, after "The Greenlanders" (1988), a medieval saga set among Norse settlers in 14th-century Greenland, and while the classic source of its inspiration is less clear, I wouldn’t rule out "War and Peace". That said, despite some vivid battle scenes and political discussion, "Some Luck" – with its careful, quiet accretion of details dramatizing how a marriage mutates over the long haul – has more in common with the measured pace of Anne Tyler’s "The Amateur Marriage" than with Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Smiley’s saga demonstrates repeatedly that most lives are a series of improvisations and a mixture of good luck and bad. The novel opens in 1920 as Walter Langdon, on the eve of his 25th birthday, takes a few moments before going home to his young wife and their infant son to check a fence and ruminate about his fateful decision to break away from his exacting father and buy his own farm nearby, not quite realizing what he was getting into. Five years later, at 30, Walter is “less and less able to imagine any other life.”

Frank, Rosanna and Walter’s firstborn, is one of the most interesting characters in the book. From early childhood, he is a bright, independent firecracker whose willfulness flummoxes his parents. Forbidden from crawling under their bed in his Sunday best, he does just that. After years of disciplinary thrashings – one of many customs, including smoking while nursing, that are bound to give modern readers pause – Walter concedes that all his punishments have had little effect: “He had not spared the rod, and he had not, therefore, spoiled the child, but Frankie was the most determined child he had ever seen.”

Although by the time he’s nine Frank has become his father’s uncomplaining helper, “drilling” corn and harvesting oats, he secures his ticket out by finagling ways to stay in school past 14, first in the local high school, then in Chicago with his Trotskyite aunt Eloise, and finally at Iowa State University in Ames, where he lives in a tent to save money. We keep expecting Frank to have to pay for his insouciance, but – although we eventually follow him to the battlefields of North Africa and Sicily – there’s no comeuppance in this volume.

Frank’s sensitive, animal-loving younger brother, Joe, is less daring, restless, and brilliant, but he too lands on his feet, experimenting  successfully with hybrid corns and dangerous anhydrous ammonia nitrogen fertilizers. When Walter sells his beloved old workhorse despite Joe’s protests, purportedly to raise money for Frank’s college tuition, he explains, “It’s not just Frankie going to school for himself.... The world is changing, and someone has to go out into it and be prepared for it.” When Joe snorts, Walter adds, “Son, you love the world you live in, and that’s good. [Frank] loves the world we don’t know much about, and that’s good, too. I consider myself lucky to have one of each in my boys.” Years later – in a sentence worth discussing – Walter reflects movingly about family members who have left the farm: “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.”

Breeding and hybridization are recurrent themes in this book that features more births than deaths – a balance that may well shift in future installments. When one of Frank’s college girlfriends shows up at the Langdon farm looking for him, Rosanna evaluates her from “a pure breeding standpoint” and can’t help thinking that “the two specimens of livestock known as Frank and Hildy would certainly produce champions, wouldn’t they?” Years later, on the brink of fatherhood, “Frank wondered if the Bergstroms and the Langdons could be successfully hybridized.”

With its year-by-year structure, "Some Luck" occasionally succumbs to a plodding “and-then” syndrome. But the book’s pace quickens in the war scenes, and the writing positively soars with Smiley’s description of Rosanna’s reflections during a Thanksgiving gathering in 1948. She marvels at all they’ve survived to come to this, “these lovely faces, these candles flickering, the flash of the silverware, the fragrances of the food hanging over the table, the heads turning this way and that, the voices murmuring and laughing.” When she meets Walter’s eye at the other end of the table, “they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing – a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.”

What’s it all about, having a family? This perfectly written scene, the climax and beating heart of "Some Luck," captures the payoff, the sudden moments of grace that can astonish and melt even the most exhausted, unsentimental parents – and readers.

"Some Luck" works well enough as a stand-alone volume, though with two-thirds of the "Last Hundred Years" trilogy to go, we’re naturally left with plenty of questions. Will we learn more about Arthur, evidently so well connected in Washington, although he appeared seemingly out of nowhere to sweep the Langstroms’ daughter Lillian off her feet? Will any of the women besides Eloise, a journalist, and Minnie, a resolutely unmarried teacher, escape the confines of homemaking? Do the ubiquitous “Luckies” that Frank’s wife smokes augur cancer in her future? Stay tuned.

While waiting for volume two, you might want to check out "A Thousand Acres," Smiley’s tragedy about the breakup of a family and the land it has cultivated for generations, Anne Tyler’s "The Amateur Marriage," which explores the complexities of familial love by following a mismatched couple bound to each other through children and memories over 60 years, and – for contrast in scope – Smiley’s early novellas about families under duress, "Ordinary Love" and "Good Will". All these books put families – happy and not – under the magnifying glass to provide intimate, telling portraits of the changing landscape of hearth and home in 20th-century America.

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