Jane Smiley’s expansive Hundred Years Trilogy offers an entertaining look at a century of American history through the eyes of the dynamic Langdon family. Each chapter covers a year, showing how the family adapts to the changes facing the country.
With Some Luck, Smiley’s family saga starts in 1920 Iowa with the Langdons trying to eke out a living on their farm despite backbreaking work, heavy debt and unpredictable weather. The foundation of the Langdons is Rosanna and Walter, who raise their five children to be independent and strong. Frank, Joe, Lillian, Henry and Claire each have distinct personalities and desires, which take the story to Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C. While Smiley spends time on each major character, World War II hero Frank is clearly front and center because of his big personality, which leads him to doing covert work for the CIA.
The second book, Early Warning, has the Langdons and their children navigating the Cold War and the challenging 1960s and ends in the 1980s. It takes some time to get used to the growing cast of characters as the family expands, but Smiley provides a helpful family tree. Frank’s twin boys, who are best friends but also fierce competitors, start sharing the spotlight with their enigmatic father. Their troubled sister, Janet, gets caught up in the People’s Temple in San Francisco.
The final book, Golden Age, follows the Langdons into the 21st century and looks at how the financial crisis that culminated in 2008 affected the family’s fortunes. Smiley even takes readers beyond current day by offering a peek at what America will be like in 2018. Again, the Langton twins grab the reader’s attention, with Richie being elected a Congressman and Michael joining the ranks of millionaire venture capitalists. The twins continue to struggle with their love-hate brotherly relationship.
If you like sweeping family sagas, I highly recommend Smiley’s trilogy. She is talented at weaving history into the lives of her characters with her skilled writing. Her characters are complex, emotional and independent. I’d advise reading the three books close to each other to remember the varied characters – no small feat with more than 1,300 pages, but worth the effort.