Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy

Jane Smiley’s “The Last Hundred Years” trilogy is a saga prioritizing the experiences of the Langdons, an Iowa farming family, over the century beginning in 1920. In chronological chapters, one per year from 1920 to the near future of 2019, Smiley follows an ordinary couple, their six children and several generations of their descendants as they navigate America’s social changes and re-evaluate their principles during decades of upheaval.

some luckSome Luck

Here’s an excerpt from my Shiny New Books review in early 2015: “Farming, unpredictable and frequently heartbreaking, is an appropriate framework for an all-American story. Aspects of the Great American Novel are certainly on display: immigrant roots, coming-of-age trajectories for individuals and the nation, and American dream scenarios of reinvention. Within the confines of its third-person omniscient point-of-view, the novel shifts between the perspectives of each main character, especially the children. Smiley avoids a gimmicky One Day effect by varying the time of year so most chapters highlight different events, birthdays or holidays. Droughts, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and McCarthyism all feature, while the start of the Cold War – including paranoia over the Russians getting the bomb – sets up the second volume.”

My rating: 4 star rating

Some months ago it occurred to me that I never followed up with the Langdons. Although I don’t generally read sequels or series, I nonetheless made it a priority to find the other two volumes of the trilogy from the library.

Early Warning

The second book covers 1953 to 1986. The family loses one member to Vietnam, one to cancer, and one to the easiest, simplest death you could imagine. There’s a shotgun wedding, a divorce, and several affairs. In short, it feels like a real family, like your family. Events seem arbitrary at the time but later take on the cast of inevitability. Historical landmarks are there as background information, not as clichéd points of action (a good example is the JFK assassination). The Vietnam War threads through the middle section, but isn’t overpowering. The connections with history are pretty subtle here. One of my favorites is when Janet, at a Vietnam protest march, suddenly realizes she’s behind Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Spock. Her later involvement with the Peoples Temple grew tiresome for me, but I appreciated the ironic eye on the future: in 1980, “Well, I guess, they invaded Afghanistan…wherever that is!”

early warningIowa was still my preferred setting, an ideal site for pondering time’s workings and how money comes and goes: Joe “knew enough at his age to know that dollars were like drops of mist – they fluttered around you and then dissipated.” I also like Andy’s therapy sessions, frequently featured in the first half. There’s even a gentle mystery in this book: a boy who doesn’t seem to be related to the family keeps showing up, but by the end we figure out who he is.

People may rise and fall in importance, just as they do in real life, but everyone has a perspective. That’s part of Smiley’s message here, I think. Early on she observes that Rosanna “hadn’t thought of Roland Frederick as having a point of view.” Recognizing other people as valid subjects, overcoming solipsism, is really what literature is all about.

Although I’m interested in what happens next, I don’t like the grandchildren generation all that much; Richie and Michael are especially unpleasant, and I have a feeling they will be major players in Golden Age. Still, I feel invested in and close to this family, so I’m going to see it through to the end.

Favorite passage:

Joe’s dystopian vision: “But he could see it, looking south – he could see all the layers lift off – the roof of the house, the second floor, the first floor. He could see the children and Jesse and Jenny and Lois and Minnie being lifted out on a fountain of debt and scattered to the winds; then he could see the corn and beans scoured away, and the topsoil, once twelve inches thick, now six inches thick, and below that, the silty clay loam, more gray than black, then the subsoil, brownish clay all the way down, down, down to the yellow layer, mostly, again, clay, all of it exposed, all of it flying into the atmosphere like money, burning up in the hot sunshine, disappearing.”

My rating: 4 star rating

Golden Age

Alas, the final installment was my least favorite. There are a few reasons for this. One is simply that I didn’t like the third- and fourth-generation characters as much. Another is that, with such a large family tree, you get more lists of names and catch-up sessions. The intrusion of history is also more overt. I noted this in the 2011 chapter, especially, which mentions the Japanese earthquake, Utøya and the Occupy movement. One character dies on 9/11; another gets a flesh-eating bacteria. One is struck by lightning; another dies in a hit and run. Not only are several of the deaths unrealistic, but, true to the winding-down spirit, there are simply a lot of them.

golden ageAs people disperse and the second generation starts to die off, the bonds between the family members weaken. The Iowa farm diminishes in real-life and symbolic importance compared to the action on the coasts: California, New York and Washington, where Richie is a congressman. I might actually have preferred if Smiley had imagined an alternative history for the 2000s and 2010s. (Of course, that would have broken the mold she made for herself.) For me, it all felt too close. I had a sense of her picking easy targets: “I would like to thank the members of the U.S. Congress for being so easy to satirize,” she writes in her acknowledgments. There’s also too much horse material – a frequent indulgence for Smiley.

The last five or so chapters were speculative at the time Smiley was writing, and some of her predictions already seem a little silly, like violent protests against a Harper government in Vancouver in 2016. However, her environmental worries are right on, and her words about the 2012 presidential election seem prescient in relation to this year’s race: a character advises his family to vote Democrat “as a protest against the Republican Party for offering a roster of candidates that went from bad to worse to worst ever.”

My rating: 3 star rating

Ultimately, my favorite overall character was Andy, who reinvented herself as a young woman and does so again as a widow, turning into a computer and investment whiz. Frank was an early favorite in Some Luck, where he reminded me a lot of Mad Men’s Don Draper, but I grew less enamored with him over the years. Henry was perhaps my second favorite in the previous two books, but he rather fades into the background in the final book.

My advice to anyone wondering whether they should read this trilogy would be to start with Some Luck and, if you really like it, proceed to Early Warning. Golden Age is largely unnecessary and can be reserved for die-hard Smiley fans or series completists.

Further reading: Literary Hub article, “Why Wasn’t Great American Novelist Jane Smiley on the Cover of a Magazine?”

10 responses

  1. Carolyn Anthony | Reply

    I enjoyed reading this. I can hear you speaking the words. What is “solipsism?” I like: “series completists. ” As for families, dynasties — I find the same to be true — I like the early personages. I’m afraid it’s true in real life. The Judd family. I’m afraid we are much less noble and interesting than my grandparents and great-grandparents. Sad.

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. It’s interesting to hear you say that. I wonder if it’s just nostalgia, or if we specifically admire previous generations for living through hardships like the Great Depression, WWII, etc. I agree that today we’re all much less interesting!

      Solipsism is thinking that only oneself exists or matters.


  2. I’ve been wondering about this trilogy–thank you for the helpful reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the idea of making each chapter a year of their lives, and think I would like the historical aspect of it. Whether or not I ever get to them remains to be seen… First, I have A Thousand Acres on my shelf to read.
    I love that you reviewed these together!


    1. A lot of critics thought the one-chapter-per-year format was a downfall, that it required too much in the way of historical survey. I actually thought it worked pretty well until fairly late into the third book, at which point the events were all too familiar.

      A Thousand Acres is very good — a Shakespearean remake (of King Lear), and all in that Iowa setting I liked so much. Of the limited selection of Smiley books I’ve read, it’s the one Some Luck reminds me most of.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A great assessment. I’ve read all of her books except Greenlanders (How? I’m obsessed with Icelandic sagas – but I have a copy now at least) and the one based on the Decameron (too much sex in the first chapter). I’ve been flirting with the idea of these and think I will go for them, but will bear your comments in mind about the third one. Do you think she got bored but felt she had to press on? I never mind too many horses, at least …


    1. Wow, you are a Smiley expert! I’ve always meant to read more of her back catalogue, but have never quite gotten around to it. Which do you most recommend? (In addition to the above I’ve read Thousand Acres, Moo, 13 Ways, Lidie Newton and Dickens.) You’ll definitely want to read the whole trilogy, I think. Perhaps with the third volume there is a sense of just grinding out the chapters to finish what she started. I had higher hopes for the ‘dystopian’ possibilities of the future-set section.


      1. I haven’t read 13 Ways, either, weirdly. I would recommend Moo and Thousand Acres, funnily enough. And I love the horse ones, but I’m sort of sensing you wouldn’t. I enjoyed the 1980s estate agent one, too … Good Faith. Ten Days in the Hills is the one I DON’T recommend!


    2. 13 Ways is one of the ones I *have* read, and quite enjoyed. I’ll keep Good Faith in mind.


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