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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Smiley’

goldenageThanksgiving, 1948, and Iowa farmer Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna’s eyes meet over the crowded dinner 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 of them rich and mysterious.”

That lovely moment occurs in Jane Smiley’s novel, Some Luck, the first in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. When I wrote about the book last fall, I compared it to a fat family photo album, one spanning the years from 1920 to 1953, with each chapter a snapshot of a year in the life of Walter, Rosanna and their five children. The shifting perspectives — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — make for a saga both epic and intimate.

The same is true of the second installment, Early Warning, which arrived in the spring. Still, it’s less the family album and more like home movies. Some scenes blur, especially in the beginning, as the Langdon family goes forth and multiplies. It takes awhile to become reacquainted with the characters from the last book, even as more arrive. But Smiley doesn’t pause. The action picks up where Some Luck left off, with the 1953 death of patriarch Walter and the family’s reactions to his loss. Again, change is as constant as the seasons.

By the time Early Warning ends, we’re emotionally invested in the sprawling Langdon clan, as familiar and frustrating as your own kin. Whatever will they do next? Which brings us to the saga’s finale Golden Age (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), in which life continues rich and mysterious — as well as messy and random.

By now, it’s 1987, and there are four-going-on-five generations of Langdons. The family tree at the beginning is a necessity. Even so, some cousins fall by the wayside, moving to other parts of the country, staying in touch with birth announcements, long-distance phone calls, maybe showing up for weddings or funerals. Still, enough Langdons move to the forefront to pull at the emotions as they are touched by history — the Reagan years, 9/11, Wall Street shenanigans, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that only occasionally feels schematic. Smiley is skilled at melding the personal with the political, everyday life with grand themes,  so it’s not especially surprising that a Langdon great-grandson and Iraq war veteran has a problem with meth, or that his great aunt finally rids herself of a controlling husband in favor of a quiet, kindly man from her hometown. Twins Michael and Richie remain fierce rivals in business and politics, and revenge is, indeed, served cold. Their sister Janet continues to hate her father Frank from faraway, seeking solace in California and training horses.

But Frank, eldest of the original Langdon offspring, surprises by mellowing in his later years and reconciling with ethereal Andy, who turns out to be made of sterner stuff when dealing with a devious son and a domineering daughter-in-law. Frank’s younger brother Henry, a gay history professor, ends up in Washington, D.C., becoming an adoptive father in old age, while brother Joe and his son Jesse struggle to hang on to the family farm back in Iowa.

About the farm. Agribusiness, climate change, genetically modified seeds. The near-future is not kind to the Langdon acres, or, indeed to America as a whole. The post-Obama years trend toward the dystopian. No wonder some Langdons wonder if they’ve already lived through their golden age. But while elderly Claire finds a sheen to her closely held memories of hearth and home, there are young Langdons looking out and ahead. The sun also rises. Did anyone say farm to table?

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godhelp“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” That’s the simple but hard-won message of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Lula Ann Bridewell, the blue-black daughter of a light-skinned mother, remembers that Sweetness could hardly bear to touch her. This physical rejection stays with her even after she grows up to be a California style maven called Bride, who wears only white clothes to accentuate her midnight beauty and has no need of the cosmetic line she has developed and branded.

Bride is living the good life — driving a white Jaguar, hanging with rappers, drinking champagne — but she can’t escape her past after an encounter with a woman just out of prison and the sudden departure of her lover, Booker. She goes searching for Booker, who is haunted by the murder of his beloved brother when they were children, but crashes her car in the desert. A hippie couple take her in, and she finds a kindred spirit in their adopted daughter Rain, who was abused by her prostitute mother.

Although this is a contemporary novel, Morrison endows it with the timeless, lyric air of a fairy tale, with a chorus of distinct, musical voices. Into the woods we go. There’s even a touch of magical realism as Bride feels herself reverting to her little-girl body. Memory both burns and heals as everyone tries to make peace with the shape-shifting past. God Help the Child is easy to read, hard to forget.

earlywarningBack in the fall, I compared Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first volume in The Last Hundred Years trilogy, to a fat album of family photos. The book spanned 1920 to 1953, and each chapter was a snapshot of a year in the life of Iowa farmer Walter Langdon, his wife Rosanna and their five children. The shifting perspective — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — made for a saga both epic and intimate. I liked it very much. Ditto for the second book, Early Warning (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), although it’s less the family album and more like home movies. Some scenes blur, especially in the beginning, as the Langdon family goes forth and multiplies. It takes awhile to become reacquainted with the characters from the last book, even as more arrive. But Smiley doesn’t pause. The action picks up where Some Luck left off, with the 1953 death of patriarch Walter and the family’s reactions to his loss. Again, change is as constant as the seasons.

Matriarch Rosanna still has a part to play, eventually deciding it’s time she learned to drive a car and not just a horse and wagon. Son Joe, who has stayed on the farm with wife Lois and their son Jesse, keeps an eye on her. Meanwhile, elder son Frank ascends the business ladder in New York, while his wife Andy uses alcohol and psychoanalysis to escape from her rambunctious brood of children. Their daughter Janey prefers visiting her cousins in Washington, D.C., where Frank’s sister Lillian seems to run the perfect suburban household. But her husband Arthur’s CIA job will cause family conflict. Elder son Tim will go to fight in Vietnam, and his sister Debbie will march against it. Janey’s bid for independence will take her to California and the People’s Temple pre-Jonestown. Before that, though, Langdon daughter Claire will marry a controlling doctor, and her handsome brother Henry, pursuing his academic career in Chicago, will acknowledge that he’s gay.

Historic milestones and social issues flash by — the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the Kennedy assassinations, Kent State, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis. Smiley details the outward trappings of the Mad Men era even as she illuminates the Langdon’s interior lives. The effect is cumulative. Once again, readers are emotionally invested in the sprawling Langdon clan. They are as familiar — and sometimes as frustrating — as your own kin. What will they do next? We’ll find out in the fall when the third book arrives.

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someluckIf you’re of a certain age, you probably have a fat family photo album stashed in a closet. If you’re lucky, the pictures reach way back into the 20th century, stiffly-posed portraits giving way to informal photos. Mileposts — births, holidays, graduations — are documented, as well as more mundane moments: Grandmother shelling peas on the porch, little cousins squeezed in a swing, smiling teenagers leaning against a vintage Dodge, only it was shiny and new back then. Oh, this is a really old one. Black-and-white fading to sepia. Look at the long curls on that boy. Who is that again?

Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), the first in The Last Hundred Years trilogy, is the Langdon family album, from 1920 to 1953, each chapter a snapshot of a year in the life of  Iowa farmer Walter, his wife Rosanna, and their six children. The shifting perspectives — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — make for a saga both epic and intimate. The Langdons are rooted in the fertile Iowa soil, but their lives are touched in various ways by the aftermath of World War I, the Depression, World War II, the McCarthy era and the beginnings of the Cold War. Change is as constant as the seasons — kerosene gives way to electricity, horse-drawn plows give way to tractors. And, of course, several of the Langdon children fly the nest, further opening up the story.

No way eldest son Frank is going to stay on the farm. Willful and determined from childhood, he escapes first in high school by living with his leftist aunt in Chicago. At Iowa State, he charms everyone with his handsome looks, easy smile, and drawling “Maybe.” He camps out in a tent to save money, woos one woman, and then another. World War II takes him to Italy. The secretive husband of his pretty sister Lillian introduces him to a covert Washington, D.C. By the time this volume ends, he’s established his home and family far from Iowa, as has Lillian.

Joe’s the brother who stays home, carrying on the farming legacy, bound not by duty but by love for the land and animals. Henry’s the bookworm, seemingly destined for academia, while Claire is a daddy’s girl who has yet to define herself. All the children emerge as indivduals from babyhood on. Rosanna even notes how each infant reacts differently to her maternal embrace. She and Walter aren’t always in accord, but they are a good match, smoothing their edges against one another through good times and bad, keeping a weather eye out. Good luck, bad luck, some luck.

Longlisted for the National Book Award, Some Luck has its Iowa-farm setting in common with Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, a contemporary King Lear. But its generational sweep is more reminiscent of The Greenlanders, yet more personal. If in the beginning it is like paging through someone else’s family album, by the 1940s and ’50s, it’s more like your own, its characters known, its setting familiar. At a 1948 Thanksgiving reunion, Walter and Rosanna’s eyes meet over the dinner 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 of them rich and mysterious.”

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The first book I ever bought with my own money was Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It was just the first of many books about horses that crowded my shelves.  On any given day as a kid, I rode what other people saw as a blue bicycle but what was to me my favorite horse of the moment, usually named after a fictional steed in one of Dorothy Lyons’ teen novels — Midnight Moon, Golden Sovereign, Red Embers — or maybe a Kentucky Derby contender whose name I liked. Crimson Satan!

If I still had a 10-speed stabled on my porch, I probably would call it Devil May Care or Jackson Bend, two entries in this year’s Derby that I like the sound of. Or maybe my ride would be Justa Bob, one of the most memorable of  many notable equines who come to life in Jane Smiley’s novel Horse Heaven. It’s my favorite fictional horse tale of recent years as it chronicles two years on the Thoroughbred racing circuit and is stuffed with so many stories of humans and horses that you practically need a racing form to keep up. That’s what I wrote in my 2000 review (http://tinyurl.com/2vou7ao), as well as “If this novel were a racehorse, it would be keeping company with Secretariat.”

Also Seabiscuit. In 2003, Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction account of the scrappy brown horse was published as Seabiscuit: An American Legend, and it later became a movie. Like the film but love the book, and not just for its contents but also its backstory. Hillenbrand came down with debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1987, the same year I was diagnosed with lupus. Reading about her struggle with CFS in The New Yorker made her one of my heroines, as inspiring as Seabiscuit. 

So, even if you don’t give a mint julep for the Kentucky Derby, or ever prayed for a pony to call your own, these two books are sure things. Like the racehorses they depict, they’ve got plenty of heart.

Open Book: I have both Seabiscuit (Random House)and Horse Heaven (Knopf) in my permanent collection, as well as Smiley’s A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck. Also, my original copy of Misty of Chincoteague. Sadly, Dorothy Lyons’ books apear to be out-of-print; I used to check them out over and over from the public library.

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