If anyone thought the prolific American writer Jane Smiley, now 65, peaked early with 1991’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Thousand Acres” almost a quarter century ago, they’d be wrong. With works ranging from the nonfiction “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel,” 13 novels, and five young-adult novels, Smiley’s extensive bibliography now includes two-thirds of what may be her most significant work: The Last Hundred Years, a trilogy orbiting around one Iowan family starting in 1920 and told by yearly increments delineated by chapters.
The trilogy began with last year’s “Some Luck,” which opens with the patriarch Walter surveying his large farm in Denby, Iowa and musing on a pair of owls nesting in the semi-dead tree in his front yard—the owls are symbolic of Walter and his wife Rosanna making a living off the land but mostly barely breaking even. The next short section introduces an unusual narrative choice of Smiley’s as the writing gets down on the ground and describes life from the perspective of their toddler son Frank playing with a spoon, basking in his mother’s attention, and trying to avoid his father’s gruff discipline—it’s disconcerting and absorbing to hear what children think, and Smiley fortunately writes from a child’s point of view more than once.
Frank was born into the hands of a drunk doctor, to which granny says, “but what would we do without some luck after all?” The Langdons are blessed with some luck all right, but you wouldn’t say much more as the numbers grow from just a few Langdons—Walter, Rosanna, and Frank, a couple of aunts, uncles, and grandparents—to five more children: Joseph, Mary Elizabeth, Lillian, Henry, and Claire. This was a time when many children were needed on a farm to help with the planting and animals and where there are tough lessons about losing animals, but even tougher ones when you lose a child.
From early on, there’s an ever-so-slight menacing feeling on the farm—a razor-sharp edge of doom cutting through the days of huge equipment, faulty weather, unpredictable soil, wild animals and wild economy and wild neighbors, a dead horse left in a shallow ravine for days of hot weather, and a orange osage bush with giant thorns and a pull on death. Upon learning his unmarried farmer uncle Rolf committed suicide, “Frank did think this was shocking, but in comparison to what he had imagined, rather dryly shocking, and strange because Uncle Rolf had finally done something.”
“Early Warning,” the second installment of the trilogy that came out earlier this year, begins in 1953 with a funeral for the patriarch, Walter Langdon—referenced as Father by eldest Frank who narrates the first section. He’s married to his fashionably cool college girlfriend Andy and has a daughter Janet and twin sons, Michael and Richie. He’s a businessman in NYC dealing in weapons and aircraft along with taking the occasional covert job from his sister Lillian’s husband Arthur who works for the CIA. They live in Virginia and have four children: Timmy, Debbie, Dean, and Tina. Joe stayed in Iowa working the family farm and married the neighbor Lois. They live in her family home with their children Annie and Jesse and Lois’ sister Minnie. Henry goes into academia on the West Coast—and they’ve rarely seen him since. And finally, Claire mis-marries a controlling doctor named Paul, has sons Grayson and Bradley, and illustrates the one example of a hairy divorce.
The years go by collecting stories from different characters’ points of view, and like all families, you have your favorites. Although rational adults know that parents have them too, it still hurts to read the lowered expectations, disappointments, and abnegation some parents surrender to in the face of less-than-optimal offspring—and it’s especially interesting to be privy to two generations of parental opinions. Walter was very hard on Frank as a child and now Frank thinks his twin boys are spoiled and slow on the uptake, while their mother never really forgives them for being born premature.
Characters often respond to the same events—the parched weather, the Vietnam War, or President Carter’s (in)effectiveness—but it’s not like Smiley writes about the same dinner party from each attendee’s perspective. Instead, the historical references remind us of the social climate in which these stories take place, though they can sometimes feel a little “Forrest Gump”-y. A reference to someone dating Neal Cassady feels cheap, while a niece’s flirtation with the Peoples Temple in San Francisco reads true as a depressing reminder of the human collateral during the still-free-loving ’70s.
As ugly at times as the storytelling is—one is easily reminded of Jonathan Franzen—there is also an adequate amount of dry humor. Here, family members offer very efficaciously personal advice to Claire who is going through a divorce: “Andy thought she should see a psychiatrist, Lois thought she should open a shop, Minnie thought she should travel, Lillian thought she should keep a journal, Henry thought she should go back to school, and Joe said they had plenty of room at the farm, obviously thinking that she might easily find herself homeless in the big world.”
“Early Warning’s” scope is as broad without ever veering off course. It’s about the adult Langdon children and the people they’re becoming, who they’ve created, the lives they’ve lived and built, along with all the political, natural, social, economical, ecological, fashionable, and cultural happenings that swirl around them on and off the farm.