This is going to be a dual review covering the first two volumes of Jane Smiley's Last Hundred Years Trilogy. I read the first volume in August and the second one about two weeks ago. Just to be clear, Jane Smiley is one of my favorite authors and though I have not read every one of her novels, I have never been disappointed with any I have read.
Some Luck, Jane Smiley, Alfred A Knopf, 2014, 395 pp
The first of the trilogy centers around an American farming family from Iowa beginning in 1920. The trilogy will span a century. This one ends in 1952. Each chapter covers a year and includes incidents in the family and in the country from that year.
The writing is super smooth and I grew to be totally invested in every single character. Obviously covering an entire year in fairly short chapters necessitated quite a distilling of history and that is part of the brilliance of the books. Early in this volume she portrays the early life of the first children in the Langdon family from their young viewpoints, reminding me of the way she imagined the horses' inner lives in Horse Heaven.
The story begins just after WWI in the year after my mother was born, the year my father was born. It moves on through the prosperous 20s, the crash of 1929, the Depression, the drought that caused the Dust Bowl, WWII, the rise of communism, the beginnings of the Red Scare, the mechanization of farming and the change to growing mostly corn, and the Korean War.
Due to My Big Fat Reading Project, I am familiar with these historical periods much better than I was when I finished my formal education. Smiley does an excellent job of showing how each period affected farmers in the Midwest. It could have been history light but is instead a tour de force concerning the development of farming, the diaspora of offspring from a farming family, and the life of women in that 33 year progression.
One of my favorite characters was Rosanna, the mother, who personifies how quickly the hard life of a farm wife in those years aged women. The whole book has a wonderful tone of family connection amidst hardship and rapidly changing times.
In an earlier decade or if Jane Smiley was a man, this novel would have been a Pulitzer Prize contender. It was long-listed for the National Book Award.
Early Warning, Jane Smiley, Alfred A Knopf, 2015, 476 pp
Now we come to volume two. This one follows the offspring of the Langdon family while the lives of many of the original parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents end. From 1953 to 1986, it covers the years I was growing up and beginning my adult life. All but one of the children of Walter and Rosanna scatter all about the United States, finding their roles in life, marrying, having their own families, and navigating their own joys and tragedies.
Again she weaves in the social and political turbulence, illustrated in the effects these changes have on the families, year by year. The book is never dull, often exciting, and frequently sad, as she gathers and intertwines all the threads. Her evidence shows how unique the United States of America is and how family ties are also bonds which will inevitably be broken to a degree as people grow up. It also shows how one's family, if one was lucky enough to have a fairly intact one in those days, could ground and anchor a person's life.
Smiley touches on several truths: that childhood and the teen years are the most fun, how adulthood is mostly the grueling hard work of accepting or trying to avoid responsibility, and how old age basically sucks. Or maybe that is how I read it because that is how I see it at this point in my life.
By the end of Early Warning I got the sense of what a saga the trilogy is. If you have ever perused Jane Smiley's book about writing, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, you will know, just by the reading list she covers, that she may have read more sagas than any working novelist today. A true saga does not moralize and this one does not. These are not sentimental, heartwarming books, but rather stories full of tragedy, humor, and a bit of philosophy.
And now I am fortunate because #3, Golden Age, had been released. I can finish the saga before the year ends!
(Both Some Luck and Early Warning are available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)