JANE SMILEY Early Warning. Reviewed by Robyne Young
Major events in US history provide the backdrop to this continuing family saga.
I finished Some Luck, the first instalment in Jane Smiley’s trilogy, The Last Hundred Years, highly anticipating this next volume, Early Warning, that would continue her story of an Iowan farming family.
Some Luck spanned the years 1923 to 1952 and introduced the Langdon family: parents, Walter and Rosanna, and their children, Frank, Joe, Mary Elizabeth, Lillian, Henry and Claire. Life in this first instalment began on the farm, but as the Langdon children grew, married and reproduced, the family tree expanded. The action of Some Luck also spread its reach to include the battlefields of World War II and life in the cities, particularly Chicago.
Early Warning describes the years from 1953-1986 and opens with Walter’s funeral. In contrast to Walter’s relatively simple existence, it is ‘… a riot of floral exuberance – not just lilies, but daffodils and tulips and sprays of apple and pear blossom’. The funeral scene also serves as a roll call, bringing the reader up to date with who‘s who and where in the family. Langdon family life and world events are linked very early in the novel when Frank, the eldest Langdon, questions his brother-in-law Arthur, a CIA agent, about Joseph Stalin’s death two weeks before:
‘Did your organization have anything to do with it?’
‘Not that I know of,’ said Arthur, seriously. ‘Just dumb luck, I suspect. But we will take the credit if it is offered to us.’ He shifted Tina to the other shoulder. ‘Maybe he doesn’t matter though. There’s no sign that things have changed or that their ambitions have waned.’
As the chapters progress, major moments in US history sometimes provide a backdrop, like the assassinations of John F and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. At other times, Langdon family members are impacted psychologically and physically by events including the Cold War and the Vietnam War, and there are some close calls with one family member narrowly escaping losing her life in Guyana in the notorious Jonestown massacre.
Through the characters’ lives, Smiley covers the subjects of religion, alcoholism, extra-marital affairs, psychoanalysis (some of it quite unconventional), homosexuality, AIDS, indulging children and its consequences, divorce, pregnancy out of wedlock and racially mixed marriages. However, rather than have this feel like a checklist to be ticked off, Smiley has created a family of this era and the inclusion of these issues feels organic.
Smiley takes the story through the ageing of the first and later the second and third generations of Langdon children, but as with the telling of many family stories, the past is interwoven to help explain the present: the familial connections, the disconnections and family traits. For example, she revives the rivalry between the brothers, Frank and Joe, through Frank’s twins, Michael and Richie. The competition between the two is so strong and physical, even when they are only ten years old, there is a fear they might actually kill each other:
Michael had picked up a piece of a branch, rather thick, and was bending over the edge of the pond smashing the end of the branch into the rim of the ice, breaking it into little pieces. Richie scrambled to the top of the hill and ran back as fast as he could, and when he passed Michael, he smacked his brother and knocked him down. He then slid a long ways without trying. He could almost, he thought, have spread his arms and taken off. When he came back to the hill, Michael punched him in the stomach, and then they both ran down the hill and slid.
Later, after an incident at military school, the two are separated.
Family members who have moved away from the farm live in relative luxury, and there is even an overseas trip to Paris for Frank, Andy and the twins to visit their daughter Janet. Like many visitors (although Janet is living in Paris) after two weeks the whole party is overwhelmed by the experience:
By that time, too, all five of them were expressing the opinion that two weeks was too long – you could only go to the Galeries Lafayette so many times, only appreciate so many paintings of the long, pale body of Jesus, his eyes closed, being taken down from the cross, or of a short man in a fancy outfit sitting on a small bouncy horse.
The trip to Paris also lays the ground for a confrontation between Janet and her father over his involvement in the Vietnam War: ‘… you spend every single minute of your working day stoking the war machine and trying to figure out how to slaughter Vietnamese peasants more quickly and efficiently.’ Frank responds, but I sense the authorial voice that has mostly been a whisper throughout this and Some Luck has the volume up here:
Do you think that the Vietnamese don’t want to defend themselves? You think they want to be communists and a client state of the Red Chinese? You think Ho Chi Minh is a nice liberal person who is going to say to those who fought him, ‘Oh, honey, so sorry we didn’t agree, just go home and plant some rice?’ This is what happens when one group of people wants to conquer the other – they move in, they slaughter the chieftains of the village, or whatever they’re called and they put the young boys into the army. I won’t say what they do to the girls. Then they go onto the next village to do it again.
Frank also tells her the truth about her beloved Uncle Arthur and his work with the CIA.
For most of the novel, Joe, Lois, and their children Annie and Jesse are on the farm, where life is still dictated by the seasons, but in 1980 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Carter’s call for a grain embargo, Joe feels unsettled and unsure of the future. This is just one of the ‘early warnings’ of the novel.
At 71, Rosanna decides to learn to drive a car and this gives her the key to a renewed spirit and offers up new experiences. ‘If she was going to start driving into town, she realized, she would have to do something about her hair and her wardrobe.’
Smiley measures well her emotional highs and lows. The tenderness is very tender and the bitterness very bitter. The shifts in voice, often within a chapter, once again kept me engaged.
As with many families, there are skeletons in the closet, or in this case, new buds hiding within the foliage of the family tree.
I have no doubt Smiley will fully explore the lives of these new buds, along with the members of the fourth generation of Langdons, against the ever-expanding canvas of US life in the final volume, Golden Age.
Jane Smiley Early Warning Mantle 2015 PB 400pp $29.99
Robyne Young writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction, blogs at robynewithane.wordpress.com and works as the Communications Officer at Regional Arts NSW.
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