Some Luck: A Novel by Jane Smiley
The year 2014 might have been a banner year for scholars of the Midwest, with the launch of this journal and the Midwestern History Association, but it was also a banner year for the Midwest in literary fiction. There might never have been a novel more explicitly devoted to celebrating the Midwest than Nickolas Butler’s well-loved Shotgun Lovesongs, set in rural and small town Wisconsin, near Eau Claire. (As the reviewer for this journal declared, “Shotgun Lovesongs seems to be, well, a bit of a love song to the rolling midwestern landscape, to the stalwart midwestern character.”) Two other top-notch writers at the top of their game set novels in rural and small town Iowa that have secured national attention and awards. Lila, the third volume in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Some Luck, Jane Smiley’s first volume in a projected trilogy about a farm family in central Iowa, was longlisted for the National Book Award. Both appeared on multiple high profile “Best of 2014” book lists. [End Page 97]
With Some Luck, Smiley returns, thirteen years after the publication of her highly acclaimed A Thousand Acres, to an Iowa farm. Other than the setting, though, this novel could hardly be more different from that earlier Pulitzer Prize—winning effort. Sure, members of the family at the center of the novel occasionally spar with each other, and they inevitably face some trials and tribulations, but unlike the folks who populated A Thousand Acres, these are overwhelmingly good, religious, salt of the earth country folk in mostly healthy family and personal relationships, and we can hardly help but root for them. With a chapter for each year from 1920 to 1953, Smiley traces the paths of the members of the Langdon family: mother and father and six children, one of whom dies as a child. Short sections within each chapter are told from the viewpoint of one member of the family. (There’s some attention to grandparents, too, one set of which still, even after World War I, continues to speak German occasionally, as does the Langdons’ hired man).
The novel at times reads almost like a compelling, intimate, social history of the rural Midwest. We see how the agricultural depression of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the Cold War affected the family. Smaller changes, especially in technology, also had a significant impact on the family. We listen in as the family debates the costs and benefits of switching from horses to tractors, of adopting electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing, and of employing chemical fertilizer. Smiley is not heavy handed in her treatment of the issues surrounding these changes. She also provides a sensitive treatment of the family’s religious evolution. (The father was raised Methodist, the mother Catholic, and for a time, after the mother is “saved” at a Billy Sunday revival, they are active in a Pentecostal church.) We also witness generational changes in childbirth, parenting, and educational practices. We watch, too, as some of the children (and the hired man) go off to pursue lives and careers in faraway places. But the family farm in the middle of Iowa continues to shape even the lives of those who have been drawn to coastal cities. Perhaps Smiley is telling us that such places are more central to American history than we often assume. In short, there’s a lot of interesting historical detail, yet it never feels contrived or didactic, like she’s showing off her research; it’s just a natural part of her masterful storytelling.
Smiley is a master at drawing us into individual scenes of everyday life. She even, in a couple of instances, gives us scenes from the viewpoint of children less than a year old. Some fiction readers would probably prefer [End Page 98] a stronger, more narrowly focused plot, but readers who can appreciate an intimate look at Iowa farm life over the middle third of the twentieth century will welcome this novel—and, presumably, its successors, which promise to follow the everyday lives of members of the Langdon family through the remainder of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Iowa City, Iowa