Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley begins the Last Hundred Years trilogy with a novel about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family set during the years 1920 to 1953. Walter and Rosanna raise a large family near the farms of their parents, and cope with an amazing amount of change, from the coming of electricity to reluctantly replacing plow horses to a tractor, drought and financial worries during the Great Depression, watching a son go off to World War II, and more. The heart of the story is a scene where the extended family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner after the war. The novel is narrated in turns by most of the Langdons, but the characters are so memorable that the changing point of view enriches rather than confuses. Remarkably, the author can even capture the reader’s attention with the description of a day in the farmhouse from the viewpoint of a toddler. Smart, opportunistic Frank is the eldest and the one who will go off to war. Lillian makes an unexpected escape from the farm, while Joe never wants to leave. Of course, the Langdons experience moments of drama and tragedy, from Rosanna giving birth alone to a revival meeting, the state fair, and sudden death, but most of the scenes are about life on the farm. Readers will welcome Early Warning, the sequel, in May.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Three generations of Sinclairs spend every summer on their private island near Martha’s Vineyard, until last year. In this hard to put down young adult novel, Cadence is now 17 and has been struggling with migraine headaches and memory loss. She can’t remember what happened on the island two years ago, and no one, not even her younger cousins, will talk about it. Her mother and aunts are drinking a lot and arguing, her wealthy, aging grandfather is trying to start over without his late wife, and her cousins and their friend Gat are acting strangely. Cadence, teen cousins Mirren and Johnny and Gat (her aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew) are the liars of the title, and with her amnesia, Cady is an unreliable narrator. The island setting, with four family homes, two docks, one beach, and a building for staff, seems idyllic, but Cady finally learns the dark secrets everyone’s been trying to hide, leaving the reader stunned. And that’s really all I can safely say about this book. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, suspenseful read with a gorgeous island setting, and don’t need any of the book’s characters to be completely likeable, then read We Were Liars.
The Son: A Novel by Philipp Meyer
During the Westward expansion of the United States, also known as “Manifest Destiny” no group of Indians gave the settlers more problems than the Comanche. They dominated an area of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico that was called “Comancheria” In “The Son”, Eli McCullough, the thirteen-year-old son of a rancher in West Texas is captured by the Comanche after his family is killed. Along with his brother they are taken, naked, on a two week ride back to the Comanche home base. The Comanche are fierce and warlike, and love going on raids against the whites, the Mexicans, and other Indian tribes. They bring back horses, booty, and slaves. At First Eli is consigned to hard manual labor with the women of the tribe, but as he proves his worth as a hunter and warrior, he is promoted to going on raids, and even earns his first scalp.
Eli’s experiences are just the beginning of the story covered in this book. The history of Texas is laid out in the stories of Eli and his descendants. Eli’s son Peter is caught up in a blood feud with the Mexican Garcia Clan over Cattle. Later when the cattle use up all the resources of the land, oil is discovered, dotting the landscape with drilling rigs and saving the families fortunes. Eli’s great granddaughter, Jeanne is raised on the ranch and can hold her own with her brothers. However when she takes over the family oil business she encounters old fashioned sexism in the nineteen sixties.
The history of the Comanche have been covered in other books and films. “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C Gwynne tells the story of Quanah Parker, the half breed son of Cynthia Parker, who was actually abducted by the Comanche and became a member of the tribe. Quanah was the last great Chief of the Comanche and presided over their eventual destruction and consignment to the reservation.
In the movie, “The Searchers” John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a civil war veteran whose niece, Debbie, is captured by the Comanche, thus starting a three year odyssey by Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin to find and bring Debbie back home.
In the movie “A Man named Horse” Richard Harris plays
I’m usually not big on family sagas, but this one really interested me because of the Comanche connection.
Red Chamber, by Pauline Chen
18th Century Beijing, China comes to life in this retelling of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. Much of the book is set at the Rongguo mansion, owned by the Jia family. Lin Daiyu comes from the south of China to live with her uncle, cousins, and grandmother for a season. She meets her cousin Baoyu, the pampered son of the household, who is studying for exams, and Baoyu’s cousin Baochai, who befriends Daiyu. Baochai and Daiyu are both fond of Baoyu. Back in Beijing after caring for her father, Daiyu finds the atmosphere greatly changed, affected by family secrets, affairs, and marriage arrangements. Food, clothing, and daily life are all richly described, but some of the characters are not well developed, especially four young adult grandchildren of the family. The emperor’s death brings tragedy to the family, and some of the characters are disgraced, while others die from illness. This is not an especially happy book, but it is vividly written and memorable. Readers looking to immerse themselves in a different time and place will find this book hard to put down.
The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton
This morning a group gathered at the library to discuss this fifty-year-old novel, which was recently reprinted. It is the family saga of Callie and Matthew Soames and their daughters, moving back and forth in time from 1896 to the 1950s in rural Missouri. The group agreed that the book starts out very pleasantly, with three grown sisters and one grandson gathering with their retired parents at their Missouri farm for a few weeks in the summer, playing in the creek, making ice cream, and watching the moonflowers bloom in the evening.
Through the different sections of the book, each told from the viewpoint of a different character, we learn about the cracks in Matthew’s and Callie’s marriage. Matthew is a teacher and school superintendent, while Callie can hardly read. Eldest daughter Jessica once broke her parents’ hearts, while dutiful middle daughter Leonie wonders why her parents are content to spend summers on their farm, with no plumbing and old furniture, while their town house is up-to-date. Their wild younger sister comes to life, but we never really learn what she is thinking. Various young men, including a daring pilot, come in and out of the family circle, none entirely satisfactory, at least not to stern Matthew and loving Callie. Tragedy occurs, but life goes on, and we circle back to the girls’ annual summer trek back to the farm, from their unique lives as a farmer’s wife, teacher, and television producer in New York City. Everyone has secrets and occasionally feels the need to escape from the proper behavior a school superintendent expects from his family. So the sweet beginning of the book is a bit deceptive, just skimming the surface of the family’s real life. As the book moves back and forth in time, I was occasionally confused as when certain events took place.
None of the group had come across this novel before, long thought to be the only book by New York advertising writer and former dancer Carleton, who grew up in rural Missouri, but a manuscript has been found for another novel, and Clair de Lune will be published next month.