Early Warning by Jane Smiley

Last year I had the privilege to review Some Luck by Jane Smiley, the first book in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. I enjoyed it so much, I’ve been eagerly awaiting her second instalment ever since. Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to appear.

Smiley’s trilogy spans several generations of the Langdons, a farming family from Iowa. Some Luck told the story of Walter, his wife, Rosanna, and their children. In Early Warning, the children have grown up and had children of their own, creating a much larger cast of characters. At first this made for difficult reading – I had trouble remembering who was who and had to keep referring back to the family tree at the front of the book. Eventually, as I found myself caught up in the rhythm of Smiley’s wonderful writing, the characters became more familiar.

Like its predecessor, this second novel is a simple drama about everyday lives. It begins in 1953, with the funeral of Walter, the patriarch of the family, and, as in the first novel, each chapter is another year told from the viewpoint of various members of the family. The story has shifted from the farm and sprawled across America, as family members take up different occupations and settle on the east coast or in major midwestern cities. In telling the story of their lives, Smiley gives us an insight into the events that shaped American history, from the mid-50s through to the mid-80s – the Cold War, fear of the atomic bomb, assassinations, the Vietnam war and the AIDs epidemic, to name a few. Although I didn’t like some of the characters as much this time round, Early Warning is an engaging story nonetheless and I’m looking forward to the third book immensely.

Sharon Peterson is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.