When I first began this blog back in 2006 I had scarcely read any American fiction. I had had a shameful but unrestrained passion for Sweet Valley High books in my early teens and had loved Nancy Drew and Peanuts just as fervently as a child. The first blogging challenge I ever undertook was a summer of reading American literature, and one of the first books I read for that challenge was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I thought it was magnificent; a retelling of King Lear set on a midwest farm where people might so easily go a little crazy at the mercy of the elements, the uncertain income from crops and the judgemental gazes of their all-seeing neighbours. It introduced me to the American style of storytelling: simple, direct, vivid, powerful.
Now Jane Smiley has returned to farming territory with her new novel, the first in a trilogy spanning the last hundred years of American history. Some Luck follows the fortunes of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953 with a chapter for each year. If this sounds schematic, it isn’t. It’s a brilliant device deployed with Smiley’s deft, clever insight into the way stories work. Shifting perspective continually through the numerous heads of the Langdon clan gives us a taste, as sharp as vinegar and as strong as black coffee, of the flavour of each year, as the fortunes of the family interact with those of the world around them. Books are three-dimensional object – they take time to read – and as the chapters pass so we feel history as it burgeons and blossoms. We pass through the long, dusty years of Depression, aware in a newly vivid way how long that dreadful slump lasted, and through the Second World War. When the book ends, McCarthyism is in the air, all set to impinge on the family in ways we can already anticipate with a shiver.
The story starts with Walter and Rosanna Langdon growing accustomed to their new, mortgaged farm, and their new, lively son, Frank. Frank is bold and stubborn, even as a toddler, and over indulged by his mother according to Rosanna’s sister, Eloise, living with the family to lend a helping hand. Rosanna’s next son, Joe, is the product of a difficult birth and is altogether a more withdrawn character, easily hurt, rarely happy. Mary Elizabeth is good but doomed, Lilian an angel child, her mother’s favourite, Henry a book worm, Claire the best-loved of her father. Eloise leaves to further her education in Chicago where she becomes caught up in Communism. Rosanna turns to religion for support in a life that seems ever more hostage to fortune. Frank is naturally adept at fixing bullies in the playground, but torments his own younger brother. Rosanna cannot help but tell Lilian that a miracle has occurred, when a well that seems to have run dry produces more water again. She knows Walter would disapprove of such fanciful thinking. The farm horses are finally retired in favour of the tractor, electricity arrives at the farm. So life runs on in the novel. Events arise, some world-shaking but seen only out of the corner of a character’s eye, so to speak, some local but devastating. As the family grows, so the story becomes more complex, more gripping as we grow attached to the characters, who have ever more at stake.
In many ways, though, rich as the patchwork quilt of this novel is, the standout character is Frankie. Strong and fearless, restlessly seeking something equal to his talents, Frankie is a beautiful paradox. A young man with the whole world in his grasp and who eventually needs a war to find himself. He becomes the occasion for some of Jane Smiley’s most profound insights into character and circumstance. When Frankie’s headmaster recommends him for college, Walter reads the letter with a great deal of reluctance:
It was not that he felt the world would damage or hurt Frankie in any way, it was much more that there were plenty of things out in the world that Frankie would learn about, and that he would then have no scruples at all.’
Rosanna is also forced to ponder the enigma that is her son:
As soon as she looked at Frankie, she wondered what motherhood was for. Everyone said you could not ask for a better son than Frank – successful, personable, and so handsome. Even Walter was satisfied with him, at last. But Rosanna knew better, Frank didn’t care a fig about any of them, not even her, his adoring mother. But did every child have to be a loving child? When they were your brothers and sisters, you accepted without hesitation that they had reservations about your parents.’
Families are the crucibles of culture; they are where the political, economic and ideological buck stops. In the family, the most powerful changes out in the world are gradually filtered down and experienced as daily life. What Jane Smiley manages so effortlessly and so engagingly to bring together is this sense of forces colliding in family life. Frank is a great case in point; he isn’t just the product of his parents and his upbringing; he becomes a man with a whole new sensibility that is shaped by the changing tide of history. We don’t see everything with Smiley’s structure – much happens off stage, beyond the margins of the page. But everything we see has an impact on how the family lives and loves, who the children become, and we fear for the future, having some knowledge of what it holds. Amazing storytelling, in a novel that I think will have to end up on my best of the year list.