World history spills into American saga
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