Some Luck - Early Warning - Golden Age by Jane Smiley
Jane Smiley has been writing for a good long time, with over a dozen novels, perhaps the most well known A Thousand Acres, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, as well several works of non-fiction, and a children’s series.
Her most recent work is a trilogy documenting a century in the life of an American family and the world in which they live.
The first, Some Luck begins in 1920 as the men return from the First World War, they marry, they re-produce and life goes on. We meet Walter and Rosanna Langdon on their farm in Iowa. We meet their first child, Frank, and in one entirely captivating chapter see the world through his young eyes. Each chapter is a single year, each one leading the reader further into the life of this growing family.
We follow the Langdon’s through the years of change in the 1920s and 1930s, the financial crash hardly affecting those with so little, though this little family on a small farm was better off than many with more to lose.
Then comes the Second World War, with the children of those who fought 20 years earlier just exactly the right age to go to war this time. Then, the return of those who survived and the years that follow, with progress and affluence for some. Then the Cold War and the fear of nuclear annihilation. Then Vietnam and again yet another generation of young men die in a foreign war as they were.
Then the hippy dippy days of the 1960s and 70s as the Langdon family continues to grow. Walter and Rosanna are now elderly – they have seen the change from horse and buggy to huge American cars, space travel – telephones – technology! Their grandchildren are now adults.
The final volume Golden Age takes us into our own time and beyond. Beginning in 1987 the children from the earlier books are aging and relationships shift as some of the Langdons become very wealthy, some simply comfortable, while others struggle. The generations take on new roles, as some of the younger members of the family come to know older aunts and uncles in a new way.
As the century advances, the young become the middle-aged and then the elderly - the grandchildren become the grandparents. As in our own lives this sometimes seems to happen in an instant – how did that grandchild who was an infant so recently become the gangling teenager he is today?
In 2018, reminiscing at a funeral, one character says to another, “Do you think we have lived through a golden age?” The response, “In comparison with what’s to come. Golden ages are always in the past.” Considering her life, a woman thinks that it is her own memories of her mother removing a pan of short bread from the oven, and her grandchildren laughing in the next room that has made her own life a golden age.
Choosing to take this novel to the year 2019, a full century after the trilogy began, Jane Smiley has had to suppose the future. Of course, the consequences of climate change is not unexpected, but what this author did not predict is the escalation of terrorism and gun violence that we hear about almost every day this summer.
What she does do is write with a fierce insight into so many lives – Some Luck, Early Warning and Golden Age becoming a sort of everyman story for a century of American life – and so fabulously interesting.