Originally published January 2016
It’s funny how the characters in any given story suddenly feel like your kids.
Such is the case with Jane Smiley’s “Some Luck“—the first in a trilogy of books about the Langdon family of Iowa, born and bred farmers. Smiley’s intent is to take readers on a journey over the course of 100 years and several generations, watching individual stories unfold as children age, families expand and splinter—all the while still tied by bonds of obligation, commitment and loyalty.
Its structure—each year represented by a single chapter—makes it easy for the reader to grasp the proverbial handlebars and take a ride. And much like your own families, you become invested in the Langdons as Walter and Rosanna embrace their new life on a farm of their own and begin to have children. In an interview with Smiley, I asked her if she felt maternal toward them, and even she said yes, but with a wicked pause, added, “Well, not all of them.”
Familial drama is perhaps my most favorite of favorite genres, if that can even be considered one. I love the voyeuristic feel of books that pull back the curtain on families, with all the joy and happiness and the ugly and sad exposed on the page. This book is a gem of an example, as we’re invited into the family as first-born Frank makes his way into the world, followed by Joey, Mary Elizabeth, Lillian, Henry and Claire.
I talked with Smiley about the book’s beautiful simplicity in storytelling—that the first half of the book, to me, held the promise that every family has a story to tell. And it was the complexity of the second half of the story and a sad? realistic? truth from Rosanna and a desperate moment in a well with Walter that were stark reminders that life isn’t always promised happy endings.
Another interesting offshoot in my conversation with Smiley was that in raising children, we’re often reminded of their individuality—which can often be at odds with reason when, after all, they emerged into the world out of us. The Langdon children indeed are all different and so very intriguing. The differences between these kids and their parents was often stark and even sometimes jarring and has me waiting impatiently for the next book to see where the next several decade takes them.
Longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award, Smiley’s work is instantly engaging and will draw you into a world of hope and desperation in its Depression-era setting of struggling farms contrasted with cultural innovation. A great read and highly recommended.