Some Luck [NOOK Book]


Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award

From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize: a powerful, engrossing new novel—the life and times of a remarkable family over three transformative decades in America. 

On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that ...
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Some Luck

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Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award

From the winner of the Pulitzer Prize: a powerful, engrossing new novel—the life and times of a remarkable family over three transformative decades in America. 

On their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different children: from Frank, the handsome, willful first born, and Joe, whose love of animals and the land sustains him, to Claire, who earns a special place in her father’s heart.

Each chapter in Some Luck covers a single year, beginning in 1920, as American soldiers like Walter return home from World War I, and going up through the early 1950s, with the country on the cusp of enormous social and economic change. As the Langdons branch out from Iowa to both coasts of America, the personal and the historical merge seamlessly: one moment electricity is just beginning to power the farm, and the next a son is volunteering to fight the Nazis; later still, a girl you’d seen growing up now has a little girl of her own, and you discover that your laughter and your admiration for all these lives are mixing with tears.   

Some Luck delivers on everything we look for in a work of fiction. Taking us through cycles of births and deaths, passions and betrayals, among characters we come to know inside and out, it is a tour de force that stands wholly on its own. But it is also the first part of a dazzling epic trilogy—a literary adventure that will span a century in America: an astonishing feat of storytelling by a beloved writer at the height of her powers.

From the Hardcover edition.

Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A Barnes & Noble Best Book of 2014

Jane Smiley’s absorbing, meditative novel Some Luck is set largely on the Langdon family’s midwestern farm, with each chapter covering a year in the family’s life from 1920 to 1953. But it keeps an eye on the advancing tide of change—from electrification and tractors to the Great Depression, Communism, and the Second World War. Will city life, higher education, and the lure of enlistment carry Rosanna and Walter Langdon’s children away from the cornfields? And if so, is that a tragedy or a triumph? Some Luck is the first in a planned trilogy that will cover a full century in the lives of the expanding Langdon clan. See all of the Best Fiction Books of 2014.

Library Journal
As Smiley demonstrated in her Pulitzer Prize winner, A Thousand Acres, she can write powerfully about American farm life while illuminating deeper truths. Here, moving from the 1920s to the 1950s, she shows how Iowa farmers Rosanna and Walter Langdon try to pass on their values to their five children. As the children grow up, with some departing for America's coasts, we get a wide-angle view of midcentury America. A featured author at LJ's Day of Dialog.
Library Journal
★ 07/01/2014
In her new work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Smiley (A Thousand Acres) moves from the 1920s to the 1950s as she unfolds the life of Iowa farmers Rosanna and Walter Langdon and their five children: brilliant, mercurial Frank; animal-loving Joe, the real farmer of the bunch; sweet Lillian, who enters into a happy marriage that has repercussions for the rest of her family; iconoclastic, bookish Henry; and baby Claire. As the children grow up and sometimes move away, we get a wide-angle view of mid-century America; a cousin's experiences with radicals in Chicago and San Francisco also take us beyond the hardscrabble life of the farm, as does the advent of World War II, which leads to Frank's enlistment and eventually to Cold War rumblings. Told in beautiful, you-are-there language, the narrative lets ordinary events accumulate to give us a significant feel of life at the time, with the importance and dangers of farming particularly well portrayed. In the end, though, this is the story of parents and children, of hope and disappointment, with Frank's prickly and uncomfortable story the fulcrum. VERDICT Highly recommended; a lush and grounded reading experience. [See Prepub Alert, 4/7/14.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
From the Publisher
“Intimate. . . . Miraculous. . . . Staggering. . . . A masterpiece in the making.” —USA Today

“Ravishing. . . . Reminiscent of the work of Willa Cather and Alice Munro. . . . Captur[es] the arc of personal and historical change in forthright prose that unexpectedly takes flight.” —O, The Oprah Magazine 

“Moving. . . . Bold. . . . Sweeping. . . . [An] old-fashioned tale of rural family life in changing times.” —The Washington Post
“[Smiley] seemingly writes the way her idol Dickens did—as easily as if it were breathing.” —The New York Times

“Audaciously delicious. . . . Impeccably drawn. . . . Every character here steals our heart. . . . We read these lives, and we find our own.” —Chicago Tribune

“Sweeping. . . . Set[s] the minor catastrophes and victories of the family’s life against a backdrop of historical change.’” —The New Yorker

“The good news? This is the first of a trilogy. The bad news? We have to wait for the next volume.” —Entertainment Weekly (A-)

“Smiley draws a convincing portrait of life on a farm in the early 20th century: the way lives were buffeted by weather, the way the work never ended and how, for kids, there was no such thing as spare time. . . . Smiley gives her trilogy the sweep of history.” —NPR

“Smiley is that rare three-fer: meticulous historian, intelligent humorist and seasoned literary novelist. . . . She makes us see, in the kindest, gentlest way, that we’re a lot more wonderful, and a lot more screwed up—as a nation, as a people, as families, as individuals—than we think we are. . . . . Make[s] the reader count down the days to Book Two.” —Los Angeles Times

“The expansive American epic is Smiley's métier, and she's in top form with this multigenerational story of an Iowa farming family—sturdy sons, passionate daughters, a tough but tender existence—across the first half of the twentieth century.” —Time

“The Langdon family knows growth, diaspora, heartbreak, and passion over three decades. It’s breathtaking to realize that this novel is the first of a trilogy!” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Compelling. . . . Drawn with Smiley’s signature specificity and clear-eyed compassion. . . . No writer has ever captured the satisfactions and frustrations of the American farmer with more insight, humor, accuracy and grace than Smiley.” —More

“Unforgettable.  . . . What seems simple at first grows profound. . . . You don’t have to have been raised on an Iowa farm to think: That sounds like my grandmother, my aunt, my father, my brother. That sounds like us.” —Miami Herald

“From Pulitzer winner Smiley, a multi-generational saga about an Iowa farming family's shifting fortunes.” —People, “Best Books of the Fall”

“Marvellously evoked. . . . Smiley’s gifts as a storyteller are in full force from the first page.” —Financial Times

“An impressive accounting of family life. . . . With Some Luck and a return to the heartland, the remarkable Smiley just got a little more remarkable.” —Houston Chronicle

“An engaging read populated by sympathetic characters who take what life brings. It’s a look back at what feels like simpler times. . . As always, Smiley is a master of the telling detail.” —The Seattle Times

“Brilliant . . . Smiley is one of America’s most accomplished and wide-ranging novelists. . . . Demonstrates how events on an isolated, unsophisticated farm in the middle of the country represent and influence the larger story of America.” —Dallas Morning News

“Remarkable. . . . Midwestern farm country has proved fertile soil for fiction writers, and no one, perhaps, has cultivated it to such fine effect as Jane Smiley.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“What’s unusual about Some Luck is how closely it’s meant to mimic real life, and yet how important Smiley’s gifts as a novelist are to achieving that effect. . . . Smiley’s ability to sketch a scene, to bring to life the quiet incidents as well as the big ones . . . are what transform the family stories into literature.” —Kansas City Star

 “A literary triumph. . . . Perfectly, beautifully true to life.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Sumptuous . . . A meditation on the things we encounter in our lives that shape our personal histories. . . . Readers will find much enjoyment in her sharp prose and finely observed details.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“The wonderful first installment of Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which tells the story of an Iowa farm family from 1920 to 2019. As far as I’m concerned, the next two cannot follow soon enough . . . Beautifully narrated . . . Extremely satisfying.” —Natalie Serber, The Oregonian

“Delightfully engaging, a novel full of pleasures both large and small.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“Satisfying . . . captivating . . . the reading experience is rewarding.” —Bustle

“Engrossing.” —San Jose Mercury News

“Sweeping, bold, and completely engrossing . . . Arguably Smiley’s finest work.” —PopMatters

“[A] tour de force. . . .  Wherever Smiley goes in Some Luck, most readers will willingly follow. Then wait, with bated breath, for her next steps.” —BookPage

“A wide-angle view of mid-century America. Told in beautiful, you-are-there language, the narrative lets ordinary events accumulate to give us a significant feel of life at the time. . . . Highly recommended; a lush and grounded reading experience.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Tremendous . . . Smiley is a seductive writer in perfect command of every element of language. . . . Smiley’s grand, assured, quietly heroic, and affecting novel is a supremely nuanced portrait of a family spanning three pivotal American decades.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Expansive. . . . Engaging. . . . Smiley juggles characters and events with her customary aplomb and storytelling craft.” Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-08-07
Smiley (Private Life, 2010, etc.) follows an Iowa farm family through the thick of the 20th century. We first meet Walter Langdon in 1920 as he anxiously surveys his fields. Milk prices are down, and anyway "worry-shading-into-alarm [is] Walter's ever-present state," thinks wife Rosanna. The freakish accidental death of a toddler daughter is the only incident here that really justifies Walter's apprehensions (it wouldn't be a Smiley novel without at least one cruel twist of fate), but underpinning the comparatively placid unfolding of three decades is farm folks' knowledge that disaster is always one bad crop away, and luck is never to be relied on. (The sardonic folk tale "Lucky Hans" is retold several times.) The Langdons raise five children to varied destinies. Smart, charismatic Frank leaves home for college and the Army. Steady, sensitive Joe stays home on the farm, its perennial round of backbreaking labor somewhat alleviated by such innovations as tractors and commercial fertilizer. Golden girl Lillian marries a government employee who gets Frank involved in spying on suspected communist agents after the war—ironic, since Rosanna's sister Eloise is a Trotskyist. Times are changing: Henry, the family intellectual, will clearly end up in academia; Lillian and Frank are both living in Eastern suburbs. Youngest daughter Claire is less vivid than her siblings, and the names begin to blur a bit as the postwar baby boom creates a burgeoning new generation, but for the most part Smiley juggles characters and events with her customary aplomb and storytelling craft. The novel doesn't so much end as stop, adding to the sense that we've simply dropped in on a continuing saga. Smiley is the least sentimental of writers, but when Rosanna and Walter look at the 23 people gathered at Thanksgiving in 1948 and "agreed in an instant: something had created itself from nothing," it's a moment of honest sentiment, honestly earned. An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Fans of old-fashioned family sagas featuring historical sweep are in — ahem — some luck. Jane Smiley's Some Luck, the first volume of an ambitious planned trilogy that will eventually span a full century, covers more than three decades in the lives of an Iowa farm family, from 1920 to 1953. With a chapter devoted to each and every year, Some Luck chronicles the births and childhoods of Rosanna and Walter Langdon's six children, the deaths of various close relatives, and the daily fortunes and misfortunes of some two dozen characters. This is set against the backdrop of a country buffeted by adversity and change, including the aftermath of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the postwar baby boom, the Red Scare, and the beginning of the Cold War. Smiley's sympathetic characters weather punishing droughts and frigid winters but also enjoy progress when tractors replace horse-drawn plows, indoor plumbing replaces outhouses, and electricity replaces kerosene lanterns.

Some Luck gives you a sense of the breadth and arc of lives and the unstoppable march of time, as well as a vivid picture of the American population's shift from country to city life. Like A Thousand Acres, Smiley's 1992 Pulitzer Prize–winning recasting of Shakespeare's King Lear, Some Luck is set on a family farm in Iowa and conveys a deep understanding of both the endless work and worries of agrarian life and the foremost question among children raised on the land — whether to stay or go.

But unlike A Thousand Acres, which is narrated by the eldest of farmer Larry Cook's three feuding daughters, Some Luck's third-person narrative shifts focus among various members of the Langdon family, including — sometimes jarringly - - its newest, youngest additions. Don't expect shades of James Joyce's modernist Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Smiley's high chair's—eye views; her point, which she conveys in straightforward prose, is that children are born with distinct personalities.

Smiley was a longtime professor of English and creative writing at Iowa State University, and her novels reflect this academic background. In addition to A Thousand Acres' Shakespearean underpinnings, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998) is her answer to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while Ten Days in the Hills (2007) is her raunchy Decameron, relocated to Hollywood. Some Luck is her second epic, after The Greenlanders (1988), a medieval saga set among Norse settlers in fourteenth-century Greenland, and while the classic source of its inspiration is less clear, I wouldn't rule out War and Peace. That said, despite some vivid battle scenes and political discussion, Some Luck — with its careful, quiet accretion of details dramatizing how a marriage mutates over the long haul — has more in common with the measured pace of Anne Tyler's The Amateur Marriage than with Tolstoy's masterpiece.

Smiley's saga demonstrates repeatedly that most lives are a series of improvisations and a mixture of good luck and bad. The novel opens in 1920 as Walter Langdon, on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, takes a few moments before going home to his young wife and their infant son to check a fence and ruminate about his fateful decision to break away from his exacting father and buy his own farm nearby, not quite realizing what he was getting into. Five years later, at thirty, Walter is "less and less able to imagine any other life."

Frank, Rosanna and Walter's firstborn, is one of the most interesting characters in the book. From early childhood, he is a bright, independent firecracker whose willfulness flummoxes his parents. Forbidden from crawling under their bed in his Sunday best, he does just that. After years of disciplinary thrashings — one of many customs, including smoking while nursing, that are bound to give modern readers pause — Walter concedes that all his punishments have had little effect: "He had not spared the rod, and he had not, therefore, spoiled the child, but Frankie was the most determined child he had ever seen."

Although by the time he's nine Frank has become his father's uncomplaining helper, "drilling" corn and harvesting oats, he secures his ticket out by finagling ways to stay in school past fourteen, first in the local high school, then in Chicago with his Trotskyite aunt Eloise, and finally at Iowa State University in Ames, where he lives in a tent to save money. We keep expecting Frank to have to pay for his insouciance, but — although we eventually follow him to the battlefields of North Africa and Sicily — there's no comeuppance in this volume.

Frank's sensitive, animal-loving younger brother, Joe, is less daring, restless, and brilliant, but he too lands on his feet, experimenting successfully with hybrid corns and dangerous anhydrous ammonia nitrogen fertilizers. When Walter sells his beloved old workhorse despite Joe's protests, purportedly to raise money for Frank's college tuition, he explains, "It's not just Frankie going to school for himself. . . . The world is changing, and someone has to go out into it and be prepared for it." When Joe snorts, Walter adds, "Son, you love the world you live in, and that's good. [Frank] loves the world we don't know much about, and that's good, too. I consider myself lucky to have one of each in my boys." Years later — in a sentence worth discussing — Walter reflects movingly about family members who have left the farm: "At first, you thought of people like Eloise and Frank and Lillian as runaways, and then, after a bit, you knew they were really scouts."

Breeding and hybridization are recurrent themes in this book that features more births than deaths — a balance that may well shift in future installments. When one of Frank's college girlfriends shows up at the Langdon farm looking for him, Rosanna evaluates her from "a pure breeding standpoint" and can't help thinking that "the two specimens of livestock known as Frank and Hildy would certainly produce champions, wouldn't they?" Years later, on the brink of fatherhood, "Frank wondered if the Bergstroms and the Langdons could be successfully hybridized."

With its year-by-year structure, Some Luck occasionally succumbs to a plodding "and-then" syndrome. But the book's pace quickens in the war scenes, and the writing positively soars with Smiley's description of Rosanna's reflections during a Thanksgiving gathering in 1948. She marvels at all they've survived to come to this, "these lovely faces, these candles flickering, the flash of the silverware, the fragrances of the food hanging over the table, the heads turning this way and that, the voices murmuring and laughing." When she meets Walter's eye at the other end of the 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 one of them rich and mysterious."

What's it all about, having a family? This perfectly written scene, the climax and beating heart of Some Luck, captures the payoff, the sudden moments of grace that can astonish and melt even the most exhausted, unsentimental parents — and readers.

Some Luck works well enough as a stand-alone volume, though with two-thirds of the Last Hundred Years trilogy to go, we're naturally left with plenty of questions. Will we learn more about Arthur, evidently so well connected in Washington, although he appeared seemingly out of nowhere to sweep the Langstroms' daughter Lillian off her feet? Will any of the women besides Eloise, a journalist, and Minnie, a resolutely unmarried teacher, escape the confines of homemaking? Do the ubiquitous "Luckies" that Frank's wife smokes augur cancer in her future? Stay tuned.

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385350396
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/7/2014
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 513
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, as well as five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. In 2001 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2006 she received the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.
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    1. Hometown:
      Northern California
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 26, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978

Read an Excerpt


Walter Langdon hadn’t walked out to check the fence along the creek for a couple of months—now that the cows were up by the barn for easier milking in the winter, he’d been putting off fence-mending—so he hadn’t seen the pair of owls nesting in the big elm. The tree was half dead; every so often Walter thought of cutting it for firewood, but he would have to get help taking it down, because it must be eighty feet tall or more and four feet in diameter. And it wouldn’t be the best firewood, hardly worth the trouble. Right then, he saw one of the owls fly out of a big cavity maybe ten to twelve feet up, either a big female or a very big male—at any rate, the biggest horned owl Walter had ever seen—and he paused and stood for a minute, still in the afternoon breeze, listening, but there was nothing. He saw why in a moment. The owl floated out for maybe twenty yards, dropped toward the snowy pasture. Then came a high screaming, and the owl rose again, this time with a full-grown rabbit in its talons, writhing, going limp, probably deadened by fear. Walter shook himself.

His gaze followed the owl upward, along the southern horizon, beyond the fence line and the tiny creek, past the road. Other than the big elm and two smaller ones, nothing broke the view—vast snow faded into vast cloud cover. He could just see the weather vane and the tip of the cupola on Harold Gruber’s barn, more than half a mile to the south. The enormous owl gave the whole scene focus, and woke him up. A rabbit, even a screaming rabbit? That was one less rabbit after his oat plants this spring. The world was full of rabbits, not so full of owls, especially owls like this one, huge and silent. After a minute or two, the owl wheeled around and headed back to the tree. Although it wasn’t yet dusk, the light was not very strong, so Walter couldn’t be sure he saw the feathery horns of another owl peeking out of the cavity in the trunk of the elm, but maybe he did. He would think that he did. He had forgotten why he came out here.

Twenty-five, he was. Twenty-five tomorrow. Some years the snow had melted for his birthday, but not this year, and so it had been a long winter full of cows. For the last two years, he’d had five milkers, but this year he was up to ten. He hadn’t understood how much extra work that would be, even with Ragnar to help, and Ragnar didn’t have any affinity for cows. Ragnar was the reason he had more cows—he needed some source of income to pay Ragnar—but the cows avoided Ragnar, and he had to do all the extra milking himself. And, of course, the price of milk would be down. His father said it would be: it was two years since the war, and the Europeans were back on their feet—or at least back on their feet enough so that the price of milk was down.

Walter walked away from this depressing thought. The funny thing was that when he told his father that he broke even this year, expecting his father to shake his head again and tell him he was crazy to buy the farm when land prices were so high, his father had patted him on the back and congratulated him. Did breaking even include paying interest on the debt? Walter nodded. “Good year, then,” said his father. His father had 320 acres, all paid for, a four-bedroom house, a big barn with hay stacked to the roof, and Walter could have gone on living there, even with Rosanna, even with the baby, especially now, with Howard taken by the influenza and the house so empty, but his father would have walked into his room day and night without knocking, bursting with another thing that Walter had to know or do or remember or finish. His father was strict, and liked things just so—he even oversaw Walter’s mother’s cooking, and always had. Rosanna complained about living with his parents—it was all Walter wanting his own place, all Walter looking at the little farmhouse (you could practically see through the walls, they were so thin), all Walter walking the fields and thinking that bottomland made up for the house, and the fields were rectangular—no difficult plowing or strange, wasted angles. It was all Walter, and so he had no one to blame but himself for this sense of panic that he was trying to walk away from on the day before his birthday. Did he know a single fellow his age with a farm of his own? Not one, at least not around here.

When you looked at Rosanna, you didn’t think she’d been raised on a farm, had farms all through her background, even in Germany. She was blonde, but slender and perfectly graceful, and when she praised the baby’s beauty, she did so without seeming to realize that it reproduced her own. Walter had seen that in some lines of cows—the calves looked stamped out by a cookie cutter, and even the way they turned their heads or kicked their hind feet into the air was the same as last year’s calf and the one before that. Walter’s family was a bastard mix, as his grandfather would say—Langdons, but with some of those long-headed ones from the Borders, with red hair, and then some of those dark-haired Irish from Wexford that were supposed to trace back to the sailors from the Spanish Armada, and some tall balding ones who always needed glasses from around Glasgow. His mother’s side leavened all of these with her Wessex ancestry (“The Chicks and the Cheeks,” she’d always said), but you couldn’t tell that Walter’s relatives were related the way you could with Rosanna’s. Even so, of all Rosanna’s aunts and uncles and cousins, the Augsbergers and the Vogels, Rosanna was the most beautiful, and that was why he had set his heart upon winning her when he came home from the war and finally really noticed her, though she went to the Catholic church. The Langdon farm and the Vogel farms weren’t far apart—no more than a mile—but even in a small town like Denby, no one had much to say to folks who went to other churches and, it must be said, spoke different languages at home.

Oh, Rosanna, just twenty, but with the self-possessed grace of a mature woman! He could see her profile as he approached the house in the dusk, outlined by the lamplight behind her. She was looking for him. Just in the tilt of her head, he could see that she had some project in mind. And of course he would say yes to her. After all, no fledgling had it easy, farmer or crow. Hadn’t he known since he was a boy the way the fledglings had to fall out of the nest and walk about, cheeping and crying, until they grew out their feathers and learned to fly on their own? Their helpless parents flew above them, and maybe dropped them a bit of food, but flying or succumbing belonged to them alone. Walter put his foot on the first step of the porch, and felt his customary sense of invigoration at this thought. On the porch, he stamped two or three times, and then slipped out of his boots. When the door opened, Rosanna drew him in, and then slipped her arms inside his unbuttoned jacket.

On the front porch, sitting up (he had just learned to sit up) on a folded blanket, Frank Langdon, aged five months, was playing with a spoon. He was holding it in his right hand by the tarnished silver bowl, and when he brought it toward his face, his eyes would cross, which made Rosanna, his mother, laugh as she shelled peas. Now that he was sitting, he could also drop the spoon, and then, very carefully, pick it up again. Before learning to sit, he had enjoyed lying on his back and waving the spoon in the air, but if he dropped the spoon, it was gone. This was no longer the case. One of the qualities Rosanna attributed to little Frank was persistence. If he was playing with the spoon, then it was the spoon he wanted to play with. If he dropped the spoon, and she happened to give him a sock doll (the sock doll that her sister, Eloise, had sewn just for Frank), Frank would fuss until she gave him the spoon. Now, sitting up, he put the spoon down and picked it up and put it down and picked it up. Although he much preferred the spoon to the doll, Rosanna always told Eloise and her mother how much Frank liked the doll. Eloise was now knitting him a wool hat. It was her first knitting project; she expected to have it done before October. Rosanna reached into the basket of pea pods and took the last handful. She didn’t mind shelling peas.

Frank was 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, Rosanna and her sister and four brothers were just like peas in a pod for being good babies, and here was Frank, another of the same breed, blond, beautiful, and easy, plenty of flesh but not a bit of fat, active but not fussy, went right down every night and only got up once, regular as sunrise, then down again for another two hours while Rosanna made breakfast for Walter and the hired man. Could she ask for a better baby?

Rosanna finished shelling peas and set the bowl on the blanket, then knelt in front of Frank and said, “What a boy! What a darling boy! Are you a darling boy?” And she kissed him on the forehead, because her mother had impressed on her that you never, never kissed a baby on the lips. She laid her hand gently on the top of his head.

Frank still had his grip on the spoon, but his mother’s face transfixed him. As it loomed closer and then retreated, his gaze followed it, and as she smiled, he smiled, and then laughed, and then he waved his arms, which resulted in the spoon’s being thrown across the blanket—a first! He saw it fly and he saw it land, and his head turned slightly so he could watch it.

Rosanna laughed, because on his face was a bona-fide look of surprise, very advanced, as far as Rosanna was concerned (though she would have to admit that she had never paid one iota of attention to her brothers and sister, except when they were in her way or in her charge—no one ever said that she enjoyed watching them or had a flair for it). Now Frank’s body tilted forward, and all of a sudden he fell over on his side, cushioned by the blanket. Being Frank, he didn’t cry. Rosanna sat him up again and handed him the spoon; then she stood up, thinking that she could hurry into the house and set the bread loaves, which should have completed their second rising by now, into the hot oven and be back out in a minute or two. Nothing could happen in a minute or two.

Spoon in hand, Frank saw and heard his mother’s dress swish around her legs as she went inside, and then the screen door slapped shut. After a moment, Frank returned his attention to the spoon, which he was now gripping by the handle, bowl upward. He smacked it on the blanket, and though it was bright against the darkness of the blanket, it made no noise, so he brought it again to his face. It got bigger and brighter and bigger and brighter—this was the confusing part—and then he felt something, not in his hand, but on his face, a pressure and then a pain. The spoon jumped away from him, and there was noise—his own noise. His arm waved, and the spoon flew again. Now the spoon was small and didn’t look like a spoon. Frank looked at it for a very long time, and then he looked around the blanket for something that was within reach. The only thing was a nice clean potato, into which Mama had cut two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Frank was not terribly interested in the potato, but it was nearby, so his hand fell upon it, gripped it, and brought it to his mouth. He tasted the potato. It tasted different from the spoon.

More interesting was the sudden appearance of the cat, orange, long, and just his, Frank’s, size. Frank let the potato drop as he looked at the cat, and then the cat was sniffing his mouth and smoothing its whiskers across Frank’s cheek, squatting to inspect the potato, pressing himself into Frank until Frank fell over again. Moments later, when the door opened and flapped closed, the cat was crouched on the porch railing, purring, and Frank was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling of the porch and kicking his legs—left, right, left, right. Mama picked him up, then arced him through the air, and he found himself pressed into her shoulder, his ear and the side of his head warm against her neck. He saw the cat one last time as the porch spun around him, and beyond that the green-gold grass, and the pale horizontal line of the dirt road, and the two fields, one for oats, a thick undulating surface, and one for corn, a quiet grid of still squares (“There’s a little breeze,” thought Rosanna; “I’ll open the upstairs windows”), and around that, a different thing, empty, flat, and large, the thing that lay over all things.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Some Luck, the engrossing, vividly textured new novel by beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jane Smiley.

1. What do you think the title means? Whose luck does it refer to? Is it only good or bad luck, or does the word “luck” shift in connotation as the novel goes forward?

2. Each chapter in the novel takes place over the course of one year. How does Smiley use this structure to propel her story?

3. Rosanna assigns personality traits to each of her children in infancy. When those traits prove true, do you think it’s because of nurture—her and Walter’s influence—or nature—personalities fully formed at birth?

4. How does Smiley use the children’s points of view at all ages—including when they are very small—to show their development and coming-of-age in real time? What are some of the memorable traits that carry from infancy to young adulthood for each of the five children?

5.   How does Mary Elizabeth’s death affect Rosanna? How does it change her relationship with the children who follow?

6. Throughout the story, Frank is described as persistent, if not outright stubborn. How does this quality help him in his life? Does it hinder him?

7. Variations on the story of Lucky Hans appear several times in the novel, including the version told by Opa to Frank in 1924, Lillian’s version remembered by Henry in 1947, and Arthur’s tale of Frank and the golden egg in 1952. What point is Smiley making by changing the mythology?

8. Over the course of the three decades Some Luck spans, various characters embrace or resist new technology—Walter and the tractor, Rosanna and electricity, Joey’s farming techniques, Frank’s study of German warfare. How does Smiley use their reactions to deepen our understanding of these characters and to show the passage of time?

9. On page 104, Eloise says to Frank, “Almost everyone sees things, but not everyone notices them.” What does she mean, and why is it fitting that she says this to Frank, of all her nephews and nieces? How does Frank exemplify the difference between seeing and noticing, especially as he uses his keen sense of “vision” to lead him throughout his life?

10.   What does Walter think and feel during the scene at the well? What do his decisions at that moment say about his own personality and the circumstances of the times? Why doesn’t he tell Rosanna about it until many years later?

11. What are examples of the different kinds of secrets that come in the novel—from those held by individuals to those of institutions, such as banks or the government? Do you have the sense that the book suggests a hierarchy of secrecy, or are all secrets equally dangerous?

12. How do you understand Andy’s identity crises and her other internal conflicts within the context of the novel? How do they reflect her relationship with Frank as well as the political and sociological forces at work during these beginning days of the Cold War?

13. What role do faith and religion play in the early parts of the novel? What about for the subsequent generation? Would you say that religion is related to the theme of luck?

14. Joey is distraught to learn of Jake’s death on page 229. Later, on page 373, he tells Lois, “I don’t get over things.” Is this why he’s so suited to farming? And does he, eventually, learn to get over things?

15. On Walter’s forty-seventh birthday, he lets each of his children select an item from a box he’d kept locked away. Joey chooses the sprig of lavender, Lillian the oriole feather, and Henry the gold coin; Claire was given the handkerchief; and Rosanna saves the photograph of Walter during the Great War for Frank. What do these totems represent?

16. Rosanna reflects on page 264, “Well, that’s what a war did for you—it made you look around at your shabby house and your modest family and give thanks for what you had and others had lost. . . . It made you stop talking about what you wished for, because, in the end, that might bring bad luck.” Frank was lucky and survived the war, but he’s far from unscathed when he returns home. Do his experiences verify or contradict Rosanna’s claim about the effects of war? How does what happened to him in Europe ripple throughout the rest of his life, as well as the lives of his family?

17.   How do the generations of men engage differently in the wars of their times? What does their involvement show about their respective personalities, the nature of war, and America’s evolving role in world conflict?

18. How does parenting change from one generation to the next? Compare Lillian and Andy to Rosanna, and Arthur and Frank to Walter. And what about the roles of the sexes?

19.   On page 392, Walter walks near the Osage-orange hedge: “Every year, Joe said, as Walter always had, that he was going to pull it up, but he never did—the roots had probably spread everywhere, and taking the thing out would be a major pain in the neck. There was always a reason not to bother. Walter touched one of the thorns. He was used to the hedge, but the thorns still seemed menacing.” What, if anything, do you think the Osage-orange hedge stands for, in the book as a whole? What metaphors are at work here?

20. By the end of Some Luck, Henry is just becoming an adult and Claire is still a child. What do you think might be ahead for them in the next book(s) of this trilogy?

21. Did your knowledge that Some Luck is the first of a trilogy affect your reading of the novel? In what ways is the conclusion of the book definitive, full circle, and in what ways does it leave things open-ended?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 22 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 19, 2014

    Really really enjoyed this book. My father grew up on a farm in

    Really really enjoyed this book. My father grew up on a farm in Iowa and his sister married a farmer and had 6 children. CANNOT wait until my cousin has finished reading it so we can discuss how close to the mark Jane is with this family. Haven't been a big fan of the author's in the past, but she has done so well with EACH character in this book and encapsulating a year into each chapter. The family/farm life unfolded in such an interesting way - some characters, as in life are more predictable than others. And while I could not relate to all of them - I felt I liked or understood most of the characters and wanted/want to know all of their stories. CANNOT wait for the next two!

    11 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 16, 2014

    Wonderful book, beautiful characters, can't wait for the next tw

    Wonderful book, beautiful characters, can't wait for the next two!

    9 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 5, 2014

    I loved this book

    I would expect anything less from a Pulitzer prize winner. I loved the characters, the story everything. I did not want it to end!

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2014

    I loved this book from beginning to end and cannot wait for the

    I loved this book from beginning to end and cannot wait for the next installment. Meeting the young couple at the start of their lives together and getting to know their children as they are born and as they grow was just engrossing to me. I think the author did a wonderful job of creating a three-dimensional world. The characters seem so real, it's almost as if she is reporting on a group of people instead of making them up. I highly recommend this book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 15, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The first volume of a good trilogy hooks the reader with a good

    The first volume of a good trilogy hooks the reader with a good story; definitive characters, intriguing concept, and exceptional execution of that concept then leave the reader panting for the next part of the story.  Knowing the second book is complete (as is the present case, along with the third volume) caused this reader to consider writing the publisher, pleading for an opportunity to read the next volumes early. This book is so good, smart, well-written and addicting that I found myself reading slower as I neared the end of the book, hoping to cause the book to last as long as possible.
    Beginning on January 1, 1920, the book follows the Langdon’s, an Iowa farm family as they live, grow and prosper. This premise would be dull with little appeal in the hands of a lesser writer; it is polished to a gleaming brilliance in the hands of this Pulitzer Prize winning author. Ms. Smiley takes this concept and weaves a flowing plot, well created characters and a brilliant concept into a work of timeless fiction with the flavor of Narrative History. This quiet farm family is (and will be) followed for the next 100 years. Each chapter in each of the books will cover a year, with each volume spanning 33 years.
    A major benefit of such an expansive idea time line, the sprawling posture that was America in the years from the end of World War One to the Korean Conflict comes into focus with a clarity and order unknown in previous works. As Rosanna and Walter begin farming their own land, they start a family. Frankie is first born and his voice is as important in the early chapters as is those of the adults. (Frankie’s perception of the world to which he has just been introduced is delightful).  Each chapter is told from the experience of different family members (there are five more children born to Rosanna and Walter in the books progress) in varying parts of the year in focus. Trying to describe the depth and fullness of this book is nearly impossible and one deserves the delight of discovering the struggles, successes, heartaches and delight in the telling of the tale.
    I had initially felt the Langdon family was too ideal – each child is hardworking, ambitious, smart, and never rebellious. It occurred to me that the life of a farm family in the early 20th Century were filled with hard work, little contact with others outside their community (what contact that did occur was rarely of a dissident voice), education was a treasured prize and that culture nurtured close-knit family ties. I expect the nest book to follow with the exactitude, clarity, spot on pacing and true-to-life feel of Some Luck. Maybe a letter to Knopf Publishers would hasten the publication by a few days.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2014

    Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but honestly I didn't get

    Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but honestly I didn't get the point. It told a story, yes, but there did not seem to be a general theme or point the author was trying to make.  The authors use of slang terms and modern words in  the historical context was distracting.  Also the ending was abrupt and left me highly disappointed. 

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2014

    I have not yet finished this book. It is so drawn out with inan

    I have not yet finished this book. It is so drawn out with inane details that I had to rest from it and start another book. I will get back to I-maybe skip some parts. I have never not finished a book that I started but this may be a first.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2015

    I find this book very difficult to get through. Struggling to fi

    I find this book very difficult to get through. Struggling to finish it. Don't think I will purchase the entire trilogy. May get from library if I can finish this first one.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2015

    Husband thinks this is a great book

    I purchased this book for my husband for Christmas; a friend had recommended it. We have read Jane Smiley's A THOUSAND ACRES and loved that wonderful book. We are former Iowa residents and identify with Smiley's environments. My husband enjoyed SOME LUCK very much, and it's waiting for me on my nightstand.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2014

    Not up to Smiley's best

    I'm a fan of Jane Smiley's, but I found this novel overlong and just a bit directionless. It has all the usual verisimilitude as to time and place of her other books, but at the end, I had a sense of having been put to a test. Whether up-beat or not, I hope for some uplift at the end of a long read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2015

    highly recommended

    A good read. Started slowly but as the years go by the story picks up. All the members of the family are engaging.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2015

    All that I expected from Jane Smiley

    I am enjoying this book and find it's narrative structure and intense detail quite familiar and much like Smiley's previous work--which is a good thing. That some reader/reviewers have not read the book past the first few pages is obvious. How do such reviews remain posted? As a final note, must add that The Greenlanders is my favorite Smiley book. I've read it three times and am looking for a hardbound copy as it is a book I want to keep and pass on to others.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2015

    From an author who lived in Iowa several years, I found it weird

    From an author who lived in Iowa several years, I found it weird that she has people shelling fresh peas once when the snow is still on the ground, and again later in the book in March. I'm no farmer (or gardener), but I do know you don't get fresh peas in March or when the snow is still on the ground. Where was the editor when this was being prepared?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2015

    Actually I thought this book was just average. I was surprised b

    Actually I thought this book was just average. I was surprised because I liked a Thousand Acres and it was a much better book than this one. Sorry, but it's just boring. I love a trilogy but the first book made me realize I don't want to read this one. It's basically a narrative on a family. The writing is bad, the characters are boring and I didn't really even want to get to know them. There's a lot of books like this, a timeline in a family and a lot are more interesting. Sorry Jane. Skip this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2015

    To Lucy

    "Sl<_>uts like you perv<_>ert this world. You deserve to die." Chops of your head.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2015

    Hey there


    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2014

    Beautifully written family history

    Under the author's skillful hand, the characters in this family saga come alive. The format, one chapter for each of thirty-three years, does not impede the flow of the story, as it could. The chapter in an uneventful year moves quickly to the next without slowing the pace of the story. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the next installment in the trilogy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2014

    Had never heard of any of these books

    And none seem worth an award especialy the poems which text wise amount to a pamphlet. The blurb of this one could be any of twenty 1.98

    0 out of 34 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2015

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews

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