Readers met the Langdon family in Some Luck, the first novel in Jane Smiley’s trilogy about an American family and an Iowa farm. A straightforward, almost old-fashioned novel, it opened in 1920 and covered the following 33 years—one year per chapter—in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their six children with tenderness and surprisingly subtle humor. Now, in the more ominously titled Early Warning, Smiley casts an even wider net, as the Langdon children, now grown to adulthood and with children of their own, navigate the immense social changes of the 1960s and ’70s.
When Early Warning opens, Walter, the Langdon patriarch, has died. Only Joe remains to work the land; his brothers and sisters have married and fanned out across the country from San Francisco to Chicago to Washington, D.C. The next generation of Langdons have their own non-rural challenges—twin boys who are vicious rivals, a troubled daughter drawn to the notorious Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple and a risk-taking son who drops out of college to fight in Vietnam. Character traits and personalities jump generations, and events that seemed peripheral in Some Luck circle back to affect the family in later decades. As land values sour and plunge, the Langford family farm is almost a character in itself, mimicking the fortunes of the various siblings. Toward the novel’s end, the appearance of a previously unknown family member provides an important opportunity for intergenerational healing.
Smiley’s narrative captures many of the touchstones of America’s postwar events and social changes: the Cold War, Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, the women’s movement, AIDS—yet the novel rarely feels generic. Like Some Luck, Early Warning focuses on the prosaic as much as the singular, and it is what each of her finely drawn characters does with what is handed to them that makes the novel so engaging. While Early Warning lacks some of the encompassing warmth of its predecessor, the strength of Smiley’s storytelling will keep readers hooked and looking forward to the third and final volume.