Book Review: Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy

Farhana Gani 30 November -0001

The lives, loves and destinies of an ordinary American family over several generations form the basis of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s masterpiece. Farhana Gani is mesmerised by a work of fiction draped in social history.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been immersed in the lives of a fascinating American family. The Langdons are at the heart of Jane Smiley’s epic literary trilogy. They’re part of a farming community in the American Midwest and the trilogy follows them over 100 years, telling a story of events big and small, including births and deaths and changing times.

The first volume, Some Luck is out in paperback. The second, Early Warning, is out on 7 May in hardback, and the final part follows later this year. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Thousand Acres and is deservedly regarded not only as a master storyteller but as one of America’s best modern writers.

Each chapter in the trilogy covers a year, starting with ‘1920’ and ending with ‘2019’. Some Luck covers the first 34 years. In 1920 Walter Langdon is a cautious young farmer, fresh from The Great War, who finds himself in charge of a large farm in Iowa. He’s married to 20-year-old Rosanna, beautiful and wise beyond her years, and their first child, Frank is a few months old.

The couple will go on to have five further children, each one a unique and distinct personality. The strength of this trilogy is in how Smiley has lovingly enabled the individual nature of each child to emerge over time, from toddlers to teenagers to adults. There’s defiant Frank; compassionate Joe; fearless Mary Elizabeth; empathetic Lillian; cerebral Henry; and watchful Claire. Each Langdon member has their own space and it’s through their points-of-view that we fully experience the family dynamic and witness a changing America.

It may sound confusing, all these characters, different relationships, and interactions, but after the first thirty pages or so of scene-setting, the style and structure of the chapters fall into place and you’ll find you’ll rarely refer to the large family tree in the opening pages. You’ll soon know who everyone is like they were your own family.

In Some Luck a lot happens to the Langdons and to the world. The family, farm, and fortunes change. One of the children dies. The Depression heralds plummeting prices creating poverty, despair and suicide. Weather destroys crops and ruins hope. The Second World War engulfs the Western world.

There’s also college and romance; family comings and goings; marriage and grandchildren; harvests, sheep-shearing, butter-making, and egg-selling. We get to know the details of family life on a farm, including the welfare of the livestock and the two workhorses, Jake and Elsa. In early 1953 tragedy suddenly strikes. Unlike the series finale we’ve come to expect from our favourite TV dramas, Some Luck refuses to end on a cliffhanger. We’re told in no uncertain terms what has happened. Like ordinary life, death is part of our common experience; our daily existence is shaped and driven by events both under our control and unforeseen. And so it goes for the Langdons.

Early Warning picks up the baton a few weeks after Some Luck ends as the family gathers for the funeral. The Langdon sons and daughters (and their own children) migrate across America with the Cold War emerging and the dark clouds of Vietnam about to gather over them. Over 33 years the Langdons survive through the best and worst of times against the social, economic, political and sexual backdrop of a radically changing America.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the final part. Not least to see how Jane Smiley has glimpsed the immediate post-Obama future, having handed in the manuscript long before Hillary Clinton threw her hat in the ring in a bid to continue another significant family dynasty.

Listen to an interview with Jane Smiley in the Reader's Digest podcast

Buy Some Luck now

Buy Early Warning now


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