Jane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ Kicks off a 100-year Family Saga

If you're familiar with Jane Smiley’s body of work, you open up one of her new novels expecting certain things: everyday human dramas, often peppered with details of Iowa farm life. Some Luck (Knopf) follows these conventions. The story tracks the Langdon family year by year, starting in 1920 and ending in 1953. In 1920, Walter Langdon is a farmer. His wife Rosanna, 20 years old, tends to the house. Frank, their first child, is just five months old, and even at this tender age, Smiley shows the world through his eyes. As the years go by and more children enter the fold, Frank emerges as the main character.

On the surface, Smiley’s work might be mistaken for a Norman Rockwell illustration of rosy-cheeked children gathering around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Some of Smiley’s subject matter — lamb castration and soybean cultivation — might not sound especially edgy for the contemporary urban reader. But her books are never simple idealistic portrayals of bygone eras; she doesn’t shy away from the dark side of human nature. In the novella Good Will (from her pair of novellas Ordinary Love & Good Will), a starry-eyed couple sets off with the idea to live with their child in a cozy cabin, off the grid. The events that unfold are disastrous. A Thousand Acres — which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 — reimagines King Lear as a child molester.

In Some Luck, the darkness is much more subtle, but it’s still there. Through three decades, the family patriarch, Walter, struggles to keep the farm going. He wants farming life to endure, but at the same time, he wants something better for his offspring. First-born Frank has his own trials in friendship, love, and war. Second son Joe ends up staying on the farm to continue the family business. This highlights the conflict at the center of the book: the roughness of farming life versus the lure of the outside world. Each character needs to decide whether to stay or go. Walter has to respect his children who manage to leave: “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.” The greatest and saddest work of farm life is figuring out how to escape it.

Some Luck is the first book to chronicle the Langdon family — “the first part of a dazzling epic trilogy,” according to the copy on the book flap. The series will cover a hundred years, presumably ending sometime in the 2020s. With each chapter, another year goes by. While the structure feels forced at first, it creates a momentum of its own. There is something satisfying about seeing characters progress from birth onward. It’s an accurate reflection of life — years with young children go by slowly, but then before you know it, they’re all grown up, getting married, and starting families of their own.

At less than 400 pages, Some Luck has the feeling of a much longer book — partly because it spans so many years and characters, and also because Smiley has lavished such careful attention on their lives. The Langdons are a big crew, big enough to warrant a five-generation family tree in the book’s opening pages, but the characters — grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, and a whole brood of children — each have distinctive, memorable personalities. The story doesn’t have a traditional narrative arc to pull the reader through, but the reading experience is still rewarding. It’s slow-going at times, but always captivating.