Book Reviews by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
“Some Luck” by Jane Smiley; Knopf Publishing Group; October 2014; 416 pp
Author Jane Smiley won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “A Thousand Acres,” a story set on a large farm in Iowa. Smiley’s new novel “Some Luck” is once again set in Iowa, this time on a small farm. It is the first book of a trilogy that will follow the Langdon family and their descendants.
“Some Luck” begins in 1920 with twenty-year old Rosanna and her twenty-five-year old husband Walter Langdon who are trying to make a living on their small farm, after having grown up on nearby farms. Their first child, Frank, is five months old. The Langdons have ten milk cows, along with hogs, sheep and some chickens. They are challenged by low milk prices, debt, bad weather and back-breaking work.
Each chapter is devoted to one year, following the Langdon family from their early years together through 1953. It is told from the perspectives of both Rosanna and Walter and their children — even as toddlers, along with Rosanna’s sister Eloise, who lives with the Langdons as hired help for a few years. Walter is a conservative, hardworking, penny-pinching father who served in World War I prior to his marriage. Rosanna is also a tireless worker and accepts the challenges of farm living. Towards the end of the book Rosanna tells Walter “My mother has had to put up with much more than I have, and your mother, too, and they just tut-tut and keep going.”
The Langdons are blessed with six children, five who live to adulthood. (There is a family tree at the beginning of the book.) Rosanna and Walter recognize the unique personalities of each of their children. Frank is a determined boy who usually figures out a way to get what he wants. Joe, their second child, is gentle and tender-hearted—too much so, his parents fear. As the family grows, with three girls and one more boy, different and interesting identities are added to the mix. Mary Elizabeth is a sweet girl; Lillian is smart and tries to please her parents and follow the rules. Henry is beautiful as a baby, but Rosanna finds him mysterious; he grows to be a bookish young man. Claire, the youngest, is the apple of her father’s eye. We follow the family through tremendous cultural change, from adding electricity and tractors to the farm to Frank volunteering to fight in World War II. Rosanna is a firm believer in education and does what she can to see that her children attend school.
“Some Luck” doesn’t have a stunning storyline or exciting climax. It is simply a brilliantly written narrative about an ordinary farm family through the course of three decades. Smiley has a great knack for portraying the people in her novels. She doesn’t give great details about her characters but her writing seems to be enough to make them familiar to us. Readers will quickly become absorbed in the Langdon’s story and will eagerly await the next book in the trilogy, which is due next May.
Smiley is the author of numerous works of fiction, non-fiction and books for young adults and has received several awards for her writing. She currently lives in Northern California but spent a number of years in Iowa.