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Posts Tagged ‘The Last Hundred Years trilogy’

godhelp“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” That’s the simple but hard-won message of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Lula Ann Bridewell, the blue-black daughter of a light-skinned mother, remembers that Sweetness could hardly bear to touch her. This physical rejection stays with her even after she grows up to be a California style maven called Bride, who wears only white clothes to accentuate her midnight beauty and has no need of the cosmetic line she has developed and branded.

Bride is living the good life — driving a white Jaguar, hanging with rappers, drinking champagne — but she can’t escape her past after an encounter with a woman just out of prison and the sudden departure of her lover, Booker. She goes searching for Booker, who is haunted by the murder of his beloved brother when they were children, but crashes her car in the desert. A hippie couple take her in, and she finds a kindred spirit in their adopted daughter Rain, who was abused by her prostitute mother.

Although this is a contemporary novel, Morrison endows it with the timeless, lyric air of a fairy tale, with a chorus of distinct, musical voices. Into the woods we go. There’s even a touch of magical realism as Bride feels herself reverting to her little-girl body. Memory both burns and heals as everyone tries to make peace with the shape-shifting past. God Help the Child is easy to read, hard to forget.

earlywarningBack in the fall, I compared Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first volume in The Last Hundred Years trilogy, to a fat album of family photos. The book spanned 1920 to 1953, and each chapter was a snapshot of a year in the life of Iowa farmer Walter Langdon, his wife Rosanna and their five children. The shifting perspective — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — made for a saga both epic and intimate. I liked it very much. Ditto for the second book, Early Warning (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), although it’s less the family album and more like home movies. Some scenes blur, especially in the beginning, as the Langdon family goes forth and multiplies. It takes awhile to become reacquainted with the characters from the last book, even as more arrive. But Smiley doesn’t pause. The action picks up where Some Luck left off, with the 1953 death of patriarch Walter and the family’s reactions to his loss. Again, change is as constant as the seasons.

Matriarch Rosanna still has a part to play, eventually deciding it’s time she learned to drive a car and not just a horse and wagon. Son Joe, who has stayed on the farm with wife Lois and their son Jesse, keeps an eye on her. Meanwhile, elder son Frank ascends the business ladder in New York, while his wife Andy uses alcohol and psychoanalysis to escape from her rambunctious brood of children. Their daughter Janey prefers visiting her cousins in Washington, D.C., where Frank’s sister Lillian seems to run the perfect suburban household. But her husband Arthur’s CIA job will cause family conflict. Elder son Tim will go to fight in Vietnam, and his sister Debbie will march against it. Janey’s bid for independence will take her to California and the People’s Temple pre-Jonestown. Before that, though, Langdon daughter Claire will marry a controlling doctor, and her handsome brother Henry, pursuing his academic career in Chicago, will acknowledge that he’s gay.

Historic milestones and social issues flash by — the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the Kennedy assassinations, Kent State, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis. Smiley details the outward trappings of the Mad Men era even as she illuminates the Langdon’s interior lives. The effect is cumulative. Once again, readers are emotionally invested in the sprawling Langdon clan. They are as familiar — and sometimes as frustrating — as your own kin. What will they do next? We’ll find out in the fall when the third book arrives.

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someluckIf you’re of a certain age, you probably have a fat family photo album stashed in a closet. If you’re lucky, the pictures reach way back into the 20th century, stiffly-posed portraits giving way to informal photos. Mileposts — births, holidays, graduations — are documented, as well as more mundane moments: Grandmother shelling peas on the porch, little cousins squeezed in a swing, smiling teenagers leaning against a vintage Dodge, only it was shiny and new back then. Oh, this is a really old one. Black-and-white fading to sepia. Look at the long curls on that boy. Who is that again?

Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), the first in The Last Hundred Years trilogy, is the Langdon family album, from 1920 to 1953, each chapter a snapshot of a year in the life of ┬áIowa farmer Walter, his wife Rosanna, and their six children. The shifting perspectives — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — make for a saga both epic and intimate. The Langdons are rooted in the fertile Iowa soil, but their lives are touched in various ways by the aftermath of World War I, the Depression, World War II, the McCarthy era and the beginnings of the Cold War. Change is as constant as the seasons — kerosene gives way to electricity, horse-drawn plows give way to tractors. And, of course, several of the Langdon children fly the nest, further opening up the story.

No way eldest son Frank is going to stay on the farm. Willful and determined from childhood, he escapes first in high school by living with his leftist aunt in Chicago. At Iowa State, he charms everyone with his handsome looks, easy smile, and drawling “Maybe.” He camps out in a tent to save money, woos one woman, and then another. World War II takes him to Italy. The secretive husband of his pretty sister Lillian introduces him to a covert Washington, D.C. By the time this volume ends, he’s established his home and family far from Iowa, as has Lillian.

Joe’s the brother who stays home, carrying on the farming legacy, bound not by duty but by love for the land and animals. Henry’s the bookworm, seemingly destined for academia, while Claire is a daddy’s girl who has yet to define herself. All the children emerge as indivduals from babyhood on. Rosanna even notes how each infant reacts differently to her maternal embrace. She and Walter aren’t always in accord, but they are a good match, smoothing their edges against one another through good times and bad, keeping a weather eye out. Good luck, bad luck, some luck.

Longlisted for the National Book Award, Some Luck has its Iowa-farm setting in common with Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, a contemporary King Lear. But its generational sweep is more reminiscent of The Greenlanders, yet more personal. If in the beginning it is like paging through someone else’s family album, by the 1940s and ’50s, it’s more like your own, its characters known, its setting familiar. At a 1948 Thanksgiving reunion, Walter and Rosanna’s eyes meet over the dinner table: “they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing — a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each of them rich and mysterious.”

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