Day 1050: Golden Age

Cover for Golden AgeGolden Age is the last book in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It begins in 1987 and finishes a couple of years into a slightly dystopian future.

The Langdon family tree has expanded since the first book. Now, the original Langdon children are in their 60’s and 70’s. One has died of cancer, and by the end of the novel, only one of them is still living.

By necessity, this novel concentrates more on some of the Langdon descendants than others. Frank and Andy’s sons Richard and Michael are continuing to clash. Richard forges a political career by being a compromiser, while Michael makes it big on Wall Street and subsequently misappropriates funds from several member of his family. Joe’s son Jesse continues to struggle with the farm while both of his sons go to war. Claire finally finds happiness with Carl. Felicity becomes an environmental activist, while Janet spends most of her time with horses. Henry and Andy are also important characters.

Like the other novels, Golden Age covers most of the important events in its time period, the past 30 years—recessions, wars, 9/11, climate change, and fiscal crimes. Guthrie goes to Iraq. A family member is killed on 9/11. Michael is a major criminal on Wall Street.

Although I still felt some distance from the characters because there were so many and because the narration skips around from one to another so often, I couldn’t help but be caught up by the sheer volume and breadth of the trilogy. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the projection into the future of a country largely devoid of rain and mounting in chaos. Smiley, of course, couldn’t predict our current peculiar election results, which shows up the problems with this type of predictive writing in a largely realistic novel. Some aspects of her last chapters remind me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series.

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Day 930: Early Warning

Cover for Early WarningEarly Warning is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It continues the story of the Langdon family, picking up in the 1950’s and ending in 1985.

The family, which began with a couple and their children and the occasional appearance of other relatives, expands during this period to grandchildren and eventually their children. As you can imagine, by 1985 we are dealing with many characters.

This is one of my criticisms of the novel. With so many characters, we don’t spend very much time with any, which creates distance from the novel. I already felt this with the first book, and this feeling increases for the second.

But is the purpose of this novel to follow the characters or the main events during these times? It seems to be the second, as we look at the ennui of suburban housewives in the 50’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its associated protests, the counterculture and Jonestown, to name a few. Smiley manages to have at least one family member involved in each of these events or movements, which is quite an accomplishment for one family from Iowa.

Of the Langdon children whose families are the focus of this novel, Frank concentrates most of his attention on business and sexual escapades, while his wife Andie struggles with a feeling of pointlessness and self-absorption. Neither of them pays much attention to their children, except that Frank puposefully fosters competition between his two twin boys, Richie and Michael. All of his children suffer from this upbringing, and the boys are at times truly scary.

Joe is the only Langdon to stay on the farm, and although he was one of my favorite characters in the first book, we don’t see much of him in this one. He and Lois have had some lucky breaks, and the farm is in better financial shape than their neighbors’, but decisions of the Reagan administration make small farms a tough business.

Lillian and Arthur raise a rowdy and happy family in Washington, D.C. But Arthur’s job with the CIA brings him under terrific pressure, and a tragic loss creates ramifications for years. This family has more than its fair share of sorrows.

Claire eventually marries a doctor and settles down in Iowa. But she has selected her husband almost in competition with a friend and eventually regrets her choice.

The novel is saved somewhat at the very end by a touching event linked to the presence of a character who isn’t explained until the end, one who appears in the middle of the book and at intervals throughout. At first I found the introduction of this character confusing, but I figured he had to be a family member, so then it wasn’t too hard to guess who he is.

I will read the final book, but I fear that the distance I feel from the story will only increase.

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Day 700: Some Luck

Cover for Some LuckSome Luck begins in 1920, five months after the birth of Frankie, Walter and Rosanna Langdon’s first child. They have only been settled on their own farm a short while.

This novel is the first of a trilogy about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family. It covers a turbulent 33 years, during which occur the Great Depression, the long drought, and the Second World War.

Most of the novel concentrates on the Langdon children. Frankie is active and always into trouble. He teases his younger brother Joey unmercifully. Joey is gentle and good with animals, dutiful and obedient. Lilian is angelic looking and well behaved, good at taking care of the younger children but a bit prissy. Henry is self-contained and spends as much time reading as possible.

It is hard to describe this novel. It moves constantly from character to character in viewpoint and has no main character, but is more like an ensemble piece. The action that takes place is mostly that of everyday living, although there are births, deaths, and weddings. Rosanna goes through a religious phase after one child’s death and drags the family to a fundamentalist church for several years and then stops.

Smiley’s characters are very human, with faults and foibles. So far, this trilogy is developing slowly, but the family’s lives make interesting reading.

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Day 685: A Thousand Acres

Cover of A Thousand AcresBest Book of the Week!
A Thousand Acres is a powerful novel set mostly in 1979 rural Iowa. It evokes a completely realized world that is complex and secret.

Ginny Smith has lived on the family farm all her life. Her husband Ty farms alongside her father, Larry Cook, and she and Ty live on what used to be their neighbor’s property, which Larry has bought to make his thousand acres of land. Ginny’s sister Rose also lives on the farm, and her husband Pete works with Larry as well, a bit less comfortably. The women’s youngest sister Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny is proud of her family’s accomplishment in creating a fine, well-run farm out of the swampland her great-grandparents bought sight unseen. It soon becomes clear that the farm and the relationship to the land is the most important thing to her family—to all of the families in the area.

At a local barbecue, Larry makes an unexpected announcement. He will create a corporation of the farm and hand it over to his three daughters. Ginny, who is mild-mannered, is taken aback and has doubts, but she does not say anything. Rose seems to be enthusiastic. Caroline simply says “I don’t know,” at which point, Larry petulantly cuts her out. When she tries to approach him later, he slams the door in her face.

Harold Clark, another older farmer, has his prodigal son Jess return after an absence of many years. Almost immediately, he begins to favor Jess over his more loyal and hard-working son Loren.

If this all is beginning to sound familiar, it should, for A Thousand Acres is a modern re-imagining of King Lear. This novel, however, turns the original on its head, for we see it from the point of view of the two “greedy” sisters. In fact, Smiley accomplishes a rather clever trick, because while the neighbors and townspeople see events occur that, from their points of view, seem parallel to those of the play, the readers of the novel are conscious of a whole new layer of information, about how two old men lie and exaggerate when they don’t get their way, and how family secrets fuel Ginny’s timidity and Rose’s rage.

This novel presents complicated, flawed characters in a fully realized setting. It is really excellent and thought-provoking.

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Day 632: The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

Cover for The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie NewtonBest Book of the Week!
Just by coincidence, it seems, I have read several books in the last few years dealing with the wars in Kansas over whether it would be a free state or not. Bleeding Kansas by Sara Paretsky was the first book I read on the subject and the least well done, not providing much background for readers who don’t know a lot about the subject. The next book I read was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, much more poetic but concerned mostly with a son’s reaction to his minister father’s participation in the bloodshed. The Good Lord Bird provides more of a comic flavor to the time, but it concentrates on a portrait of John Brown. I just finished Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which provides the most background to the issues and a more vivid picture of the times.

Lidie Harkness is a tall, plain young woman who has spent most of her time avoiding her traditional duties and instead rides, hunts, and swims with her 12-year-old cousin Frank near their home in Quincy, Illinois. She is the only child of her very old father’s second wife, and her sisters are much older. When her father dies, she knows her sisters are at a loss for what to do with her and eager to get her off their hands.

She meets Thomas Newton, a New England abolitionist on his way to join friends in Lawrence, Kansas. He seems struck by the stories Frank tells him of Lidie’s outdoor abilities, and it is not long before they are married and on their way down the Mississippi.

Flyers are plastered all over Lidie’s brother-in-law’s store promising a settled paradise in Kansas, but the reality is much more frantic and primitive. Lidie and Thomas find themselvs in a bustling but rustic town and are soon trying to build a homestead from a rough 12 x 12 cabin. Of concern, though, are all the rumors about the political situation and the outbursts of violence against the mostly free-state settlers by groups of pro-slavery Missourians who are trying to force them out.

In this tempestuous climate, Lidie tries to get to know her husband and also to understand just how committed she is to the fight against slavery. The novel depicts its time and location vividly. Lidie’s is an interesting portrait of a young woman attempting to find her own place in the world and decide what she believes about marriage and the issues of her time.