On reading the blurbs and beginning to read the book itself, the initial impression was that I was paging through The Saturday Evening Post while episodes of The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie were showing on the television. Not for long however.
Prolific American writer Jane Smiley has given us the first book of a planned trilogy telling the story of the Langdon family over a span of a hundred years. Beginning in 1920, she gently but relentlessly introduces us to the Langdons – Walter, pater familias, of Scottish and Irish descent; Rosanna, the blonde blue-eyed daughter of German Catholics and their five very different children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family’s land; the beautiful Lillian who enters a seemingly fairy-tale marriage with a man (a spy?) only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who simply does his own thing and Claire, the laatlammetjie.
Moving from post-World War I America through to the early 1950s, each chapter covers one year – a useful device – Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family’s triumphs and tragedies, focusing on the realities of farm life. While using all the family members as narrators, the storyline is essentially devoted to Frank as he grows up, leaves the farm to study, goes away to fight in the second world war (in France, Italy and Germany); but Some Luck is not simply an observation of family life on an Iowa farm and the pressures it is naturally susceptible to; it is also a subtle analysis of the idea of family, and of the truths its surface impressions will mask.
Smiley uses the dramatic changes that occur during the first half of the twentieth century to highlight changes in the family dynamics.The extent to which each of these vast events is dwelt upon depends largely on the narrative’s shifting focus: so we find ourselves brought up close to war-time battlewith Frank, who, having spent his childhood on the farm shooting rabbits and foxes to sell the skins for pocket money, becomes a sniper in the allied army. This is one of the novel’s cleverest ploys: its rhythmic unfolding lulls us into the sense that, somehow, we can tell what is going to happen. We can’t; we think we’re in for another tranche of unpredictable corn prices and then suddenly someone’s married a spy.
But, already, stories have gone untold – there are things we never really know much about at all. Family episodes are alluded to and then left hanging, sometimes to be picked up again and sometimes not. So the narrative rolls on encompassing dramatic childbirths,tentative romances, long lives and unexpected deaths, all the while set against the relentless development of increasingly powerful modernity. Written with much compassion and wisdom, Some Luck takes us through the cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley’s deep understanding of human nature and the nature of history, but never forgetting the role of fate and chance.