Field of Dreams and Drought: Jane Smiley’s Golden Age

A century of change in three novels about one Iowa farm family.

Golden Age

Golden Age. By Jane Smiley. Oct. 2015. 464p. Knopf, $26.95 (9780307700346).

With Golden Age, Smiley grandly concludes her Last Hundred Years trilogy, a multigenerational saga about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family. The story began in 1920 in Some Luck (2014), reached 1986 in Early Warning (2015), and stretches into the very near future in the final installment. In each novel, Smiley has subtly yet pointedly linked forces political, technological, financial, and social to personal lives, tracing in the most organic, unobtrusive, yet clarifying manner the enormous changes that have taken place during the last century.

On the farming front, Jesse, the next in line following Walter and Joe, has been running the farm more scientifically than intuitively, with one eye on his computer, and now finds himself shackled with debt and trapped into using genetically modified seeds and environmentally deleterious pesticides. To farm is to live at the mercy of weather, and Smiley is a passionate observer of sun and storms, a theme made exponentially more dire by global warming as Iowa withers in a drought, and Yellowstone burns. Another ongoing theme brought to new depths here is the ripple effect of war. Jesse and Jen’s son, Guthrie, serves in Iraq, then returns home physically intact but psychically injured.

Each novel is a whole and vital world in its own right,
and together the three stand as a veritable cosmos as
Smiley makes brilliant use of the literary trilogy.

Smiley does revel in the blissfulness of being, celebrating the glory of horses, the good company of dogs, the sweet astonishment of quickening life and newborn babies, the sheltering intimacy of a loving marriage, the pleasure of solitude. She wryly tracks the slow march toward gender equality through the experiences of the Langdon girls and women, including free-spirited Felicity, who, after realizing that her first passion, the veterinary profession, is not right for her, joins the Occupy movement.

As she introduces new faces, Smiley extends the lives of characters readers have become involved with, including Chicago-based history professor Henry, whose ex-lover, Philip, has died of AIDs, and the now happily liberated Claire. Heretofore vaporous Andy turns elegantly steely as her and Frank’s diametrically and, ultimately, catastrophically opposed twins achieve fame and notoriety when Richie becomes a U.S. congressman and Michael grows obscenely rich and malevolent as a monster of Wall Street .

Smiley sustains an enthralling narrative velocity and buoyancy, punctuated with ricocheting dialogue, as she creates a spectacular amplitude of characters, emotions, and events. Sensuousness, dread, recognition, shock, sorrow, mischievous humor, revelation, empathy—all are generated by Smiley’s fluid, precisely calibrated prose, abiding connection to the terrain she maps, fascination with her characters, and command of the nuances of their predicaments. Each novel is a whole and vital world in its own right, and together the three stand as a veritable cosmos as Smiley makes brilliant use of the literary trilogy. The ideal form for encompassing the breadth and depth of our brash, glorious, flawed, precious country, it has inspired many significant American writers.

A nation violently riven by the Civil War catalyzed Louisa May Alcott’s New England–set March trilogy: Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys. Booth Tarkington follows several generations of a midwestern family in the Growth trilogy: The Turmoil, The Magnificent Ambersons, National Avenue. Theodore Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire—The Financier, The Titan, The Stoic—features Frank Cowperwood, a fictional version of a real-life Chicago streetcar tycoon. E. L. Doctorow described John Dos Passos’ 1930s U.S.A. trilogy—The 42nd Parallel, 1919, The Big Money—as “vaultingly ambitious.” Louis Terkel became Studs thanks to James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy: Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, Judgment Day. Philip Roth’s American trilogy delves into twentieth-century moral dilemmas: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain. Toni Morrison illuminates African American life during times of war in Beloved, Jazz, Paradise. And like Smiley, Marilynne Robinson found Iowa to be fertile ground as she created her exquisitely spiritual and poetic Gilead trilogy—Gilead, Home, Lila.

As for Smiley’s cantering, far-reaching, yet intimate trilogy, it is both timely in the issues it so astutely raises, especially as Iowa is once again in the presidential election spotlight, and timeless in the rapture of its storytelling and the humanness of its insights into family, self, and our connection to the land. Readers will be reading and rereading Smiley’s Last Hundred Years far into the next.

This review first appeared in the September 1, 2015, issue of Booklist.

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About the Author:

Donna Seaman is adult books editor at Booklist. Her radio interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books (2005). Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Donna.

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