A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is one of those books that pulled me out of myself. I read it when I was 23 and on my first cross-country road trip. I don’t remember many of the details of that novel, but I remember the fact that the world on the page and world outside my car window blurred together.
Despite being a big Smiley fan, It took me a over a year to get to Some Luck, the first in her trilogy about a farm family. I think I put it off because its size was intimidating (and I guess that means that I have already broken my resolution to read only short books in 2016). It is over 400 pages and written in the tiniest font imaginable.
But now that I’ve read it, I also know that Some Luck is really a 1200 page novel broken into thirds. Talk about a long book! It’s Smiley’s joke on me -- Now I’m on the hook for reading another 800 pages to find out “what happens” to the Langford family, a regular farm family in Iowa. Some Luck follows every family member from the 1920s to the 1950s, and each of the next books in the trilogy takes on a new thirty year time period.
I was completely captivated by this first book in the series, but it is not the kind of book that will appeal to everyone. In a way, nothing really happens in the story. People grow up and die. Dinners get made and cleared. People get married, and babies are born. There’s a matter-of-factness about the family’s experience, evoking a culture of survival and restraint. Of course, as the family makes dinner and plants the crops, the reader also experiences two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the McCarthy Era through the eyes of typical people. Smiley’s writing is subtly brilliant.
But, to enjoy this novel, you have to appreciate subtly. There is not much flash and bang. There’s no zombie apocalypse. You will not find this book under the heading, “Page Turner” or “A Book That Will Keep You Up All Night.” This is a book about small, quiet changes -- the stuff, really, of every day life.
Doesn't it seem like “every day life” literature is on the wane? I first noticed it when my kids were in elementary school. The books of my childhood were all largely “realistic fiction,” but my kids had a steady diet of dragons and evil and the imminent end of the world. Has our expectation of what makes for a good story changed over the decades? Does it take more “action” to captivate us? And if so, why?