Booked Up

Jane Smiley’s New Epic Novel

Pulitzer Prize-winning author begins a new trilogy -- and beautifully -- in Some Luck.

By - Nov 7th, 2014 11:49 am
Some Luck by Jane Smiley.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley.

In Jane Smiley’s new epic, Some Luck, the novelist returns to Iowa, familiar territory from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres.Centered on the rural Langdon family, each chapter of this ambitious chronicle tells the events of a single year, from 1920 to 1953. Its scope is fitting, as this is first part of a planned trilogy.

Some Luck begins in the aftermath of World War I, as the surviving service men return to the United States. Their lives have been changed forever, but they find comfort in the familiar farm chores they had left behind. Walter Langdon and his bride, Rosanna, start their home together in bucolic Denby, Iowa far from the European battlefields that still haunt Walter.

Children follow in rapid succession and lend an air of frivolity and high spirits to these early chapters. Some of the minute recreations of farm life may be a little slow-going for modern readers, but one must admire the detail and research that makes this forgotten past come vividly alive. One of the virtuoso turns in this section comes from narration by an infant as he learns about the world.

We follow that baby, Frankie, as he grows and matures. His quest for self-identity is contrasted with the often prosaic lives of the farm workers and relatives who come and go across the stage. Births, marriages, and deaths mount up as the slow pattern of rural life unfolds. As the family ages and grows, we see Langdon relatives move to the coasts, experiencing the changes of an increasingly urban nation.

The Great Depression, the advent of the Nazis, World War II, the atomic bomb, and the Cold War hover over the Langdons as values change to suit the times. Ms. Smiley’s artistry is most evident in her deft portrayal of how children mature to adulthood and their children in turn grow up in the often frightening new world, far from the shelter of Denby. She leaves us in the prosperous 1950’s as America is poised for great things and future struggles.

Especially fascinating are the later chapters following the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here we see how the arms race, suburbanization, and the treat of Communism affect even the most apolitical members of the Langdons’ extended family. Paranoia, xenophobia, and rock-ribbed conservatism rise as Americans face the potential for instantaneous annihilation and the loss of their family roots.

In this first volume of a trilogy, we are dazzled by the scope of the introduction, but left wanting more. It is Ms. Smiley’s great accomplishment that we care what happens to these characters and want to know what will become of them in our world today. Some Luck will leave you feeling very fortunate, indeed, that we have such talented writers like Ms. Smiley in our midst.

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Upcoming Book Events:

Friday, November 7 (6:30 PM): Evening with Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table and Baking Chez Moi: Recipes from My Paris Home to Your Home Anywhere, at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, 3133 E. Newberry Blvd., Milwaukee. Tickets are $95 (plus tax and gratuity) and include admission for one to the talk and dinner, and an autographed hardcover of Greenspan’s latest book. For more information and to reserve tickets, please call Lake Park Bistro: (414) 962-6300. This event is co-sponsored by Wisconsin Foodie and Boswell Book Company.

Monday, November 10 (7:00 PM): Outwords Men’s Reading Group discusses Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. Call (414) 963-9089.  New members always welcome!

Monday, November 10 (7:00 PM): Sapna Thottathil, author of India’s Organic Farming Revolution: What It Means for Our Global Food System, at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Tuesday, November 11 (7:00 PM): Lesbian Reading Group at Outwords Books discusses Sweet, Sweet Wine by Jamie Clevenger at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee. Everyone is welcome to join the discussion.

Tuesday, November 11 (7:00 PM): Miriam Toews, author of A Complicated Kindess, The Flying Troutmans, and All My Puny Sorrowsat Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, November 12 (3:00 PM & 7:00 PM): Golda Meir Library Event with local author Joe Sweeney, author of Moving the Needle: Get Free, Get Clear, and Get Going in Your Career, Business, and Life! in the 4th Floor Conference Center at UWM’s Golda Meir Library, 2311 E. Hartford Avenue, Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by UWM Libraries, Friends of the Golda Meir Library, and Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, November 12 (6:30 PM): Book Club discusses The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. (414) 774-2665

Wednesday, November 12 (7:00 PM): Reading by Gillian Conoley, Donald Wellman, and Murat Nemet-Nejat at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001

Thursday, November 13 (7:00 PM): Ticketed Event with Colonel Chris Hadfield, author of You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes: Photographs from the International Space Station in conversation with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Kathleen Dunn at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, November 14 (5 :30 PM ): Woodland Pattern’s 2014 Anniversary Gala featuring Edward Sanders at Kenilworth Studios, Sixth Floor Raw Space, 1915 East Kenilworth Place. $80-$150

Friday, November 14 (7:00 PM): Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This, at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at  And good reading!

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