A famous American post–World War I song struck a nerve by asking parents, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres) addresses this concern in her absorbing, meditative new novel Some Luck, each chapter of which covers a year from 1920 to 1953 in the life of both the ever-expanding Langdon family and its land. Will city life, higher education, and the looming threat of another war lure Rosanna and Walter’s children from the cornfields? If so, is that a tragedy or a triumph?
Rosanna and Walter are, in 1920, thrifty, hardworking, mind-your-own-business yet still socially conscious Midwesterners. Though God-fearing, they are the kind of people who look down on too-enthusiastic revival meetings, declaring that “you can be saved perfectly well without making a spectacle of yourself,” and who claim that “if you have to go to Texas for something, you don’t need it.” At least at first. Not conservative—sick of Hoover, Walter votes for FDR—they are still, by nature, suspicious of change. And change is what the 20th century, as well as good fiction, is all about.
The 20th century careens forward like Santa Claus on his sleigh, tossing out electrification, tractors, the Great Depression, Communism, the Second World War, and much, much more to the good little boys and girls of America. Rosanna and Walter cope the best they can, bending without breaking, even after the Crash. They’re aware throughout, though, that their situation is precarious. Even if they survive the transition from horses and buggies to mechanization and hybrid corn, perhaps the best gift they can give their children is not the farm itself but the farm as a launching pad to something better. After all, Rosanna and Walter have no illusions about their chosen path. Eking one’s living out from the land is a tenuous choice, often a desperate one, as Smiley makes clear early on:
If anyone remembered that rearing a child on a farm was dangerous, it was Rosanna….What she did know was that some farmers understood that the death of someone around the farm, often a child, was the price of farming.
The menace of the farm is one of the novel’s main antagonists. Time is another. For that reason, it feels appropriate that Some Luck came out in not long after Richard Linklater’s movie Boyhood, which was filmed with deliberate slowness over 12 years. Audiences observe as members of a family—primarily its older son—grow and change; there’s no plot, exactly, except observations on the effects of time. In Smiley’s work, too, our main character is a son: Frank, Rosanna and Walter’s first child. Tall, handsome, shrewd, energetic, and forward-facing, he’s a perfect match for his era. Too savvy to swagger, he still makes his way with confidence through Chicago, where he lives with his radical aunt and her English Jewish émigré husband; then to college; and then to war, having more adventures than his younger siblings combined. Their quieter, though still varied and detailed, lives make a vivid counterpoint to his.
There is some incident but not much drama, even when death swoops down and makes off with a character we care about, or another character strongly considers suicide. If there’s an exclamation point anywhere in the text, I missed it; Smiley is as low-key and matter-of-fact as her protagonists. Her point seems to be to subvert our expectations of a contemporary American novel, while at the same time exposing us to an often ignored or misunderstood part of the American experience. In many ways, this is a throwback to sprawling, agricultural European novels like Anna Karenina and Middlemarch, about which it should be said Smiley is an expert. Yet the conceit—one chapter for each year, no matter what—helps it stand out among both current novels and older ones.
The ambiguity of the title could be read as positive, neutral, or negative, depending on your tone of voice. Say it bitterly (“Some luck…”) and it’s bitter. Say it with appreciation (“That was some luck!”) and it’s appreciative. Say it without any intonation and it’s merely descriptive: “We had some luck,” good and bad. That’s history in a nutshell. The fact that Smiley handles it so adroitly, while still telling several stories at once, is remarkable.
Although intended as the first installment of a trilogy, Some Luck can stand alone: as an occasionally challenging but worthwhile novel, as a complete world, as a monument to American resiliency and a lost way of life that manages to never be sentimental about the way we were.
Some Luck is on sale now.