World his­tory spills into Amer­i­can saga

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Don An­der­son

Early Warn­ing By Jane Smi­ley Man­tle, 476pp, $29.99 “Arthur re­alised what he was miss­ing, pre­dic­tive of his fu­ture em­brace of Lillian and Frank and the noisy, wild Lang­dons, who some­times did what they were told, but al­ways had some­thing to say about it.”

This en­cap­su­lates the Lang­don fam­ily saga, the sub­ject of Jane Smi­ley’s The Last Hun­dred Years tril­ogy, of which Early Warn­ing is the sec­ond vol­ume. The first, Some Luck, pub­lished eight months ago, is about 80 pages shorter than its suc­ces­sor. Ei­ther the Pulitzer Prize win­ner has had three aces up her sleeve or she writes aw­ful fast. Run, Jane, run.

The Lang­dons, con­sti­tut­ing three gen­er­a­tions and at least a dozen mem­bers ex­clud­ing spouses, are or were an Iowa farm­ing fam­ily, good coun­try peo­ple from the heart of the heart of the Amer­i­can Mid­west. Some Luck cov­ered the years 1920-53. By 1953-86, dur­ing which Early Warn­ing un­folds, many, if not most, of the fam­ily mem­bers have moved to towns or cities.

Joe Lang­don — of whom we are told in the first vol­ume, “One of the great rev­e­la­tions of Joe’s life was soy­beans” — has re­mained true to his roots, and pro­vides read­ers with a clear his­tory of the fate of farm­ers un­der sev­eral US ad­min­is­tra­tions. Soy­beans save him.

Joe’s suc­cess with soy­beans strad­dles the times in which Amer­i­can grain farm­ers were un­able to sell their crops, the gov­ern­ment pay-

May 9-10, 2015 ing them to de­stroy the re­sults of their labours. The ex­pla­na­tion was at least partly po­lit­i­cal — the Cold War with Rus­sia. Allen Gins­berg’s 1961 poem Death to Van Gogh’s Ear, con­tains such mem­o­rable lines as: “just as Mil­lion tons of hu­man wheat were burned in se­cret cav­erns un­der the White House / While In­dia starved and screamed”; and “fiends in our gov­ern­ment have in­vented a cold-turkey cure for / ad­dic­tion as ob­so­lete as the De­fense Early Warn­ing Radar Sys­tem. / I am the de­fense early warn­ing radar sys­tem.” Can Smi­ley agree with the open- ing line of Gins­berg’s poem, “Poet is Priest”?

Cer­tainly one of her women, Eloise Vo­gel, sis­ter to ma­tri­arch Rosanna Vo­gel Lang­don, who mar­ries Julius Sil­ber and em­braces Trot­sky, would for much of her life agree with Gins­berg’s sec­ond line: “Money has reck­oned the soul of Amer­ica”. Some mem­bers of the ex­tended Lang­don fam­ily — Frank, for ex­am­ple — are cap­i­tal­ists, some so­cial­ists, even com­mu­nists. It is dif­fi­cult not to en­joy Eloise’s rea­sons for leav­ing the party.

‘‘Lil­ian thought it funny that, af­ter forty years or so, what pushed her aunt Eloise out of the Com­mu­nist Party was Chair­man Mao shak­ing hands with Richard Nixon … [Eloise said] ‘Spender left, and I stayed. Koestler left, and I stayed. Mit­ford left, and I stayed. Then Sartre left, and I stayed. Did you see the look on Mao’s face? He might as well have been giv­ing Tricky Dick a big kiss on the lips.’ She sounded per­son­ally in­sulted.’’

The Lang­dons are fre­quently a fam­ily di­vided. Con­trast Eloise, Frank’s daugh­ter Janet, who de­tests and re­jects her fa­ther, and Tim, who is killed in Viet­nam, with Frank’s son Mi-

US pres­i­dent Richard Nixon meets Chi­nese leader Mao Ze­dong in China in 1972

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.