by Jane Smiley
Knopf, 395 pp., $26.95
“Some Luck,” Jane Smiley’s new novel, opens with a whimper — the infant cry of Frankie Langdon, born to a young couple named Walter and Rosanna Langdon. It is 1920 in rural Iowa.
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He’s “a good baby, hardly ever fussy, which, according to Rosanna’s mother, was a characteristic of all her side of the family. Speaking of peas … ”
It takes a skillful stylist to keep such a chatty style from devolving into the saccharine or kitschy. But Smiley is that, a self-assured writer who launches her story from a baby’s-eye view and gradually embraces Walter, Rosanna and the brood they produced.
And she’s not stopping there: In two yet-to-be-published novels, Smiley will follow the Langdons to the present day, creating a multigenerational epic built on familiar soil — the same story arc as Smiley’s one-volume 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, “A Thousand Acres.”
“I hope your papa and Ragnar got all the cows in, I hope they did!” Baby Frankie hears Rosanna exclaim as she gazes out on a bleak winter landscape. “Goodness me, what a life — and don’t tell him I said so!”
Smiley’s choice of time and place goes beyond her own writing experience. In the wake of World War I, Americans began their mass migration away from the farm and to the city. Drought and dust in the Depression push more people off the land. But not the Langdons.
“It was not that they could go hungry — not only did Mama have pork and beef and chicken stored in the cellar, there were deer everywhere, and turkeys, too. Papa said that all the animals were thirsty and hungry. In a way, it was a mercy to shoot them.”
Smiley organizes the book in chapters that cover a year at time. She plumbs the drama in ordinary life, hitting all our nostalgia buttons on the way, from the one-room schoolhouse and horse-drawn plow to those ubiquitous symbols of the ’50s, the TV set and cowboy pajamas.
As the landscape changes, from a vista of corn fields and self-sufficiency to green lawns and consumerism, change goes down with a surprisingly smooth effect: Unlike the sisters in “A Thousand Acres,” there are no internecine battles, and when the early death of one child spirals Rosanna into depression, she climbs out with the help of an evangelical church — and then moves on.
As the charmed oldest son, Frankie leads us to the European front in World War II and then to the Eastern Seaboard, remaining unscathed in the face of a Communist witch hunt and the frightening prospect of nuclear war. He remains the coolest of the cool, while sweet brother Joe does the heavy lifting back on the farm.
As always, Smiley is a master of the telling detail. Even a confirmed city boy remembers where he came from, noticing the apple that the woman sitting on the park bench next to him is eating: “a pippin, Frank thought, from the rough skin.”
“Some Luck” is an engaging read populated by sympathetic characters who take what life brings. It’s a look back at what feels like simpler times — although Frank, the most contained and complex of Rosanna’s children, may be pointing the way to more neurotic terrain as Smiley continues her saga forward.
Meanwhile, family is Smiley’s turf, and she plays it well. As the Langdons gather en masse for Thanksgiving dinner in 1948, Rosanna and Walter exchange glances, agreeing “in that instant: something had created itself from nothing — a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with 23 different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.”
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.