Book Review: Some Luck by Jane Smiley

December 1st, 2014  |  Published in November 2014

Jane Smiley’s novel One Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is compelling and gripping not only because the book builds to a surprise and horrifying climax, but also because Smiley understands the rhythms of farm life, the influence of weather, the very soil of Iowa, in which her characters are seeded and grow.  Smiley returns to farm life in Iowa with the first of a projected trilogy, Some Luck.  The trilogy is a family saga, and this first of three books begins in the late twenties, carries us through The Depression, and leaves us right after World War II, before the economic boom in America takes place.  Although there is no exact narrator/protagonist, the reader will assume it to be Rosanna, whom we meet as young bride, determined to prove to her parents that she can be a perfect farm wife to her new husband Walter, who has just purchased his farm, very near his parents’.  Let us state up front that Rosanna succeeds in being that perfect farm wife, although the costs to her are greater than she would have thought.  Smiley gives us a portal through which we participate in the daily lives and constant struggles of this now nearly extinct phenomenon, the family farm.  The reader will learn a great deal about what crops to plant, when and why, and will find such information riveting and flawlessly rendered.  Smiley knows her Iowa.  Six children are born in the course of this first novel, and we know that we will be following their futures in successive works.

Part of Smiley’s genius in Some Luck is in her ability to make all eight people (one daughter dies very young, of a lightning strike) entirely original, and mostly different from one another.  Family resemblances, physical as well as psychological, run through the book as a way of connecting the generations on both sides of the family, but the author’s ability to delineate character in children is astonishing.  Just as mothers often claim to know their children’s personalities at birth, Rosanna does, too, but her observations are shared through Smiley’s ability to understand babies and small children in general.  We will find all the children’s characters will remain consistent all through this book, and no doubt in the others: some will seek the ongoing perceived safety of farm life, while others are restless and will strike out for city life.  Several are beautiful or handsome, while others are not; some favor Rosanna, while others are closer to their father.  These dynamics set the tone for everything that will follow, and is as brilliantly delineated as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks children are, and Galsworthy’s Forsythes also are.  It is rare for a writer of adult fiction to delineate children as well as these three writers do: Hosannah to Smiley for not patronizing this family, and for understanding the depth of children’s feelings.

Rosanna demands small joys though small things, and the accumulation of birthday dinners and gifts, holidays, and the creation of “the best pies” have meaning that connects families and neighbors and friends.  When the Depression hits, neighbor children move in and out with a fluidity based upon need as well as upon love, and various siblings of Rosanna’s will also live in as what we would now call nannies or au pairs.  People earn their keep, but no one is thrown out of the house: we forget this now, but Smiley reminds us of the nobility wherein family members and neighbors protect and shelter and feed their own.  We are aware, in reading Some Luck, of values that we have lost along with ways of living that are long gone, although the farm life is tough and the needs of animals, crops and people constant, they are presented as less a burden and more a tradition worth maintaining.  One of the few things that baffled me in the book is the near sexlessness of her older children; the elder two sons, whom we leave off well into their twenties, although married, seem totally uncomfortable with their physical selves (I wonder whether this trait will come back to haunt in future parts of the trilogy).

Farm living brings with it an extreme awareness of the changes in seasons, and the sheer delight that the five remaining family members exude when certain flowers bloom, or certain animals birth, create a holistic kind of beauty that runs throughout the book.  Smiley, through Rosanna, does remind us that the lives she presents get through because of “some luck”, and no doubt all farmers know and believe that.  The self-sufficiency required to live on a farm, particularly in winter, is sometimes frighteningly real.

Just like the rhythms of crops and land and animals, Smiley sees the family life on a farm as cyclical.  Hers is a radical view of history and development, as linear history, as in the growth of each child, always occurs, but the greater cycles of weather and food always predominate, partly making Some Luck the work of art and genius that it is.  This is a very long novel, perfect for late fall and winter reading, in which the Jane Smiley who won The Pulitzer Prize returns in complete triumph with a novel that seems ageless and timeless and flawless.

–Daniel Brown

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