By Seth Reid
Friend of WordTheatre and PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Jane Smiley has not been one to shy away from daunting literary challenges in the past. In fact, watching her fiction progress from its early stages up to A Thousand Acres, the novel that won her the Pulitzer Prize, one might get the idea that her goal is to systematically plant her flag in every literary genre. Having already left her mark in short stories, novels, non-fiction, and young adult fiction, Smiley, with the imminent April release of her novel Early Warning, is continuing her push into one of today’s more popular forms, the trilogy. And we at WordTheatre are predicting it will be another victory for her.
Early Warning is the next installment of the story of the Langdons, a family of farmers in Iowa. And although the action of the novel focuses on the same characters from Some Luck, the first book, time has not preserved the family as they were when we met them. As the children become adults, and as the political framework of the nation begins to change, the characters are inevitably shaped by personal strife and international conflict. And this is where Smiley’s journey into the trilogy meets its greatest test: can Early Warning add meaningful changes to the characters and narrative of the Langdon family while also accounting for the changes that take place historically?
It is a test that Smiley’s prose seems prepared to meet. As the Langdons face the years from 1953 through 1980, they face every considerable historical aspect of that time: post-WWII optimism, the financial boom, The Korean War, The Cold War, The Vietnam War just to name a few. Consequently, the struggles of this family come to encompass the struggles of the nation. But rather than exist as lofty symbols of these well-known historical successes and conflicts, the Langdons remain a deeply personal point of contact for the reader. Smiley’s crucial attention to the human aspect of her epic trilogy results in a novel that the L.A. Review of Books says “stands entirely on its own as an engrossing story of the challenges—and rewards—of family and home, even in the most turbulent of times, all while showcasing a beloved writer at the height of her considerable powers.”
While Early Warning will build wonderfully on the already great content that Smiley has drawn out of her familiar Iowa setting, we can’t help but be already looking forward to seeing the results of Smiley taking on a literary challenge even more controversial than the past: the future. According to the author’s website, the Langdon saga will conclude as far into the future as the year 2020. Considering the actual release of the final book will be well before that date, it will be a fascinating peek into the future as imagined by one of our most unique modern novelists.