This is a great winter - for reading at least. Thanks to all that time I spent recovering from the flu, I’ve discovered a new favorite reading spot on the couch and it’s where you’ll find me for more and more significant periods of time these bitterly cold days.
This week I finished Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, which is the first of a planned trilogy about the Langdon family of farmers, begins in 1920. Each chapter represents a year in the life of the family, with this volume ending in 1953.
So, the novel encompasses a generation and half’s worth of living, loving, working, going to school, having children. And of course, dying. There’s not a lot of major excitement or action - it’s ordinary life on a fair to middling sized farm. Drought comes, the Depression happens, war intervenes. It’s 395 pages of starkly beautiful prose about the kind of life-in-general events we all experience, whether we’re farmers, carpenters, doctors, lawyers, homemakers, musicians. It’s the story of a family, of life in American during a 30 year period.
Why should we care about this Langdon family, then? There’s nothing special about them. Not a Pulitzer Prize winner among them, nor a researcher who cures cancer, or a philanthropist who saves the lives of refugees.
Perhaps because they are just like us. Ordinary, imperfect, living quiet lives doing the best they can with the time and talents they’ve been given. Because Smiley elevates their simple passage through life with writing like this, in a scene near the end of the book as Rosanna, the matriarch, surveys her family over Thanksgiving dinner:
She should have sat down...but she didn’t want to sit down, or eat at all; she just wanted to stand there and look at them as they passed the two gravy boats and began to cut their food. They couldn’t have survived so many strange events. Take your pick - the birth of Henry in that room over there, with the wind howling and the dirt blowing in. Take your pick - all of them nearly dying of heat that summer of ’36. Take your pick - Joey falling out of the hayloft, Frankie driving the car to Usherton, Frankie disappearing into the Italian Campaign. Take your pick - Walter falling into the well. Take your pick - Granny Mary with her cancer, but still walking around. Take your pick - Lillian running off with a stranger who turned out to be a clown but a lovable one, and nice looking, and weren’t Timmy and Debbie just darling? Normally Rosanna took credit for everything, but now she thought, this was too much. She could not have created this moment, these lovely faces, these candles flickering, the flash of silverware, the fragrances of the food, the heads turning this way and that, the voices murmuring and laughing. She looked at Walter who was so far away at the other end of the table. As if on cue, Walter looked at Rosanna, and 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 one of them rich and mysterious. Rosanna wrapped her arms around herself for a moment and sat down.
It’s what we all do. Create something - a LIFE - from nothing. And if we have some luck, we survive all the strange events of our own individual lives from generation to generation and can find a point to survey it all with wonder, amazement, and pride.
Needless to say, I’m eager to read the next volume in the trilogy.
I’ll be here on my couch, waiting.