Monday, March 23, 2015

Jane Smiley: Simplicity and Subtlety at Its Best

Sometimes I love a novel that just knocks my socks off, takes my breath away; at other times, though, I enjoy gentler fare.  Even though the midwestern plains are far removed from my own experience, I find myself drawn to works set there over and over again.  Often the understated language, the simple and delicate story line sneaks up on  me. 

Kent Haruf's Plainsong and Eventide were both that kind of novel, so subdued at first until I found myself surprised, loving the gentle characters.  This new novel, too, is reviving comparison to the works of Marilynne Robinson. 

I hadn't read Jane Smiley in awhile. I had first read her A Thousand Acres right after I taught King Lear for the first time, and I had ventured into other of her works.  Some Luck, which I learn is to be the first of a trilogy, is set in Iowa and begins in 1920 in the infancy of Frankie Langdon, the son of Methodist Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna Vogel from a German Catholic family.

Year by year, as the family grows, Walter and Rosanna grown into themselves, dealing with the usual hard work of farm life, as well as the devastation of drought and the Depression.  Their brood illustrates the old adage, "No two children are born to the same parents."  While Frankie--eventually calling himself Frank--is a dependent, sometimes deceiving child, his brother Joe seems weaker, less confident.  Their beautiful baby sister Lillian, born after the accidental death of little Mary Elizabeth, shows more self confidence--sometimes surprising the whole lot of Langdons.  Henry and Claire, born later, find their own places and personalities. Claire, in fact, born after Rosanna has moved past hyperparenting, becomes her father's favorite.

Rosanna's sister Eloise, who lives with them awhile, goes on to marry a Russian Jewish communist--just before the McCarthy Era.  Smiley manages to step up close to her characters while places them against the backdrop of their world--World War II, political changes, motor cars, trucks, and tractors replacing horses.

Smiley's writing rarely provides laugh-out-loud moments, gasps, or sobs.  Instead, she shares those small personal moments, observations of daily life that make her characters real to readers: marital relations in midlife, a child's loss of a stray dog he wanted for a pet, the death of a friend during college.  Her characters. during daily survival, manage to find love, to build good lives with honest hard work.

After turning the last page, I'm pleased to know there will be more to come.


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