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Some Luck

Jun 28, 2015

Rural_Women_Iowa_circa_1930Some Luck by Jane Smiley is the first installment in a trilogy, the second of which, Early Warning, has just been released.

In Some Luck, Smiley has chosen to have every chapter cover one year; the first year being 1920 and the last 1953; thirty-three years in 395 pages in which a couple marry, have six children, raise five and see the next generation begin to be born. It’s an interesting telling that feels like remembrances, snapshots, and a memoir, though from many points of view, including a 5-month-old baby (which I found an intriguing and successful perspective).

There are many things to like about Some Luck: life on the farm during drought, insane heat, falling grain prices, and with snow up past the first floor windows—the setting and how it feels living this life is marvelously drawn.

Smiley creates such a realistic picture of this isolated, busy, small community that it’s startling to follow the eldest child Frank out into the world to Chicago and university, then to Europe during World War II. It’s shocking—as it must be for the character—to realize that a larger world exists just hours away.

 

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There’s not a lot of time to relax, play, and reflect on a farm—free time is negligible. We see that specifically with Rosanna, the matriarch of this young family who is initially described as graceful and beautiful but after a few kids and with endless chores during the day, day after day, year after year, she makes the conscious decision to be neat and tidy, but to no longer try to be pretty or good looking. And, she succeeds.

Regarding her children, Rosanna has interesting and odd reflections and observations—how she sees each one, determines their idiosyncrasies and then sets them into a figurative box. As a boy, Frank is always doing what he’s told not to do, which neither Rosanna nor her husband Walter understand. Why would he do exactly what he’s told not to do, they ask themselves, each other, and him. Why is Frank’s head wired this way? It doesn’t compute for them; they can’t comprehend it. And neither can Frank. This initial lack of understanding of what motivates Frank never changes. Is that because more children are being born, year after year, so there’s no time or energy to follow a child’s evolution? Rosanne makes particular attempts to find a larger meaning to her life, but basically she and Walter do what is expected by marrying and by her bearing children as long as her body will allow it. Children are to be raised, not necessarily beings with whom to bond.

 

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Smiley writes the characters with a deft hand, at least initially. The children are impetuous, curious, reckless, cautionary, adventurous, and care-taking—Smiley presents a distinct picture of each member of the family, but as the novel progresses, as the children grow, I came to feel that I was in the characters’ heads, in their minds only as they think of themselves, not how they feel about the other members of their family. I felt the farm and life on the farm, but I didn’t feel the characters, what made them tic; I didn’t learn to understand them by how they interact with each other.

I didn’t dislike any of the characters, I’m just not sure why Smiley has chosen these people, these characters for her trilogy. I’m not sure why this is a story Smiley wants or needs to tell.

One day, after Frank has left for college and subsequently never writes, Rosanna wonders, what’s the payoff—being a mother six times over and spending decades doing nothing but working almost every moment of every day, raising kids and keeping a household together. But it’s too late to ask that question. The foundation of emotional distance was laid too long ago.

I do look forward, though, to reading Early Warning to find whether or not the reader receives a payoff.

 

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Author Jane Smiley

Author Jane Smiley

 

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Photo, top right, Vetra and Reva Padget, circa 1930; in collection of Leon Wilkinson; sourced from IowaPublicRadio.org.

Photo: Farm in Leon, Iowa (1939), by Unknown or not provided (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo, farmhouse, by User: Magicpiano (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons




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