The second book in Jane Smiley’s 100 Years Trilogy, “Early Warning,” which was preceded by “Some Luck” demonstrates the author’s grace and ease in telling the Langdon family’s intergenerational saga. This time she takes up the life stories of Rosana and Walter Langdon’s children and grandchildren beginning in the year, 1953.
As in “Some Luck,” Smiley returns to the trope of having each chapter represent a year in the life of the characters being discussed. It is an effective device for grounding the reader in the times and mood of not only the U.S., but at times, the rest of the world as well. Rosana and Walter’s offspring have scattered great distances from one another and from their hometown of Denby, Iowa.
All except for Joe, who stayed to farm not only his father’s land but that acquired in marrying his neighbor. His aim was always simple and direct – to find the kind of happiness that his parents had experienced living on and from the land, knowing the seasons intimately and continuing in the community that had provided so much to his father’s and mother’s families. He wanted to be a part of that as much as his siblings wanted to escape the confines of the small rural community.
The author takes Joe’s brothers and sisters and their children, if they married, through the rest of the 1950’s as well as the Kennedy years and the Vietnam War, which touches one of the Langdon’s daughters deeply and tragically. The struggles for civil rights is documented as it affects the Langdons along with all the social upheaval of the 1970’s followed by the 1980’s obsession with the accumulation of wealth and possessions. “Early Warning” bears witness to levels of change that border on chaos at times in the form of major shifts in civil rights for African-Americans, space exploration, the moon landing, the tremendous effects emerging technology bring, the paranoia of the cold war, the sexual revolution and women’s struggles for equality.
There is a tremendous list of characters in this book. If you read this considerable piece of literary fiction, and I urge you to do so, you will find yourself referring to the family tree provided in the book’s early pages frequently.
With this writer’s complete control of language, plot, and character, she gives the reader a fascinating overview of the 20th century’s social history. If you are a woman in her prime, it will stir up memories and emotions for the periods of sea change from a few decades ago. Her descriptions of everyday life and the challenges faced by each Langdon family member will draw you into their conflicts and their contortions. No one quite knew how to handle the “new norms” as old role models for every aspect of politics, love, marriage, child rearing, education, careers and the ways wars were fought and reported were shattered daily and sometimes hourly.
Walter and Rosana’s children are in the midst of every facet of the life in this modern world. Their existences are fast paced and high pressured. Even Joe’s life, though somewhat slower paced, is not immune to the cause and effect of Washington’s meddling in farm economics and world politics. Smiley’s genius is in saturating and manipulating our hearts and minds with her phenomenal prose to make us feel what her characters were going through at the time.
I am betting that not many, if any, questioned Jane Smiley receiving the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her novel “A Thousand Acres.” I am wondering though if she and Marilynne Robinson are being considered for the Nobel in Literature. There is speculation that their names appear often on the short list for that prize. In my view, their writing is certainly on a level with, and at times exceeds, that of winners in the new millennium. I hope the rumors of their names on this abbreviated roster are true. Going further, I hope both authors rise to the very top very soon. It would be a wonderful honor for each of them, for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where Smiley taught until the late 1980’s and where Robinson is still on the faculty, and for America as a whole when one of ours joins the list of Nobel Laureates.
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