Farm Life in Iowa in the first half of the 20th Century: Background information when reading Some Luck

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Discuss |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Some Luck

by Jane Smiley

Some Luck by Jane Smiley X
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 416 pages
    Jul 2015, 416 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Alta Ifland
Buy This Book

Farm Life in Iowa in the first half of the 20th Century

This article relates to Some Luck

Print Review

The QuickeningMichelle Hoover's The Quickening covers roughly the same timeframe and space as Jane Smiley's Some Luck: from the beginning of World War I (rather than its end in Smiley's novel) to 1950, on neighboring farms in the upper Midwest. Hoover, the granddaughter of four farming families, grew up in Ames, Iowa – where Smiley attended graduate school – and her rootedness in this place is evident in her mastery of the characters' dialogue, their unsentimental, earthy personalities, and her rich descriptions of daily farm life. Through a journey that lasts almost half a century, Smiley and Hoover help us understand how American farmers lived during this period.

Like Some Luck, The Quickening is written chronologically in chapters spanning one to two years, a structure that makes the reader experience the indelibility of time's passage. An original touch in The Quickening is that the chapters are written alternately in the voices of Enidina Current and her friend, Mary Morrow, thus giving the novel a poetic rhythm that parallels the sentences' lyrical style.

TractorThe main couples in both novels – the Currents in The Quickening, and the Langdons in Some Luck – start with, roughly, the same assets, but end in very different places. In 1914, Enidina and Frank Current have a dozen cows, sixteen hogs, four hens and two horses. Their farm has a hundred and eighty acres, a few tons of hay and fifty bushels of corn. They grow apples, peaches and strawberries, and what they can't eat, they can. They keep the jars of preserves, the cider and milk in a cave serving as a cellar – a hole dug in the yard and lined with bricks. In the fall they butcher their hogs and make them into sausages and ham.

When Rosanna and Walter Langdon get married in 1920, they have ten cows, twenty sheep, a few hogs, fifty hens and two horses. We aren't told how much land Walter owns, but we know that his father had three hundred and twenty acres, "all paid for," and a four-bedroom house. Like most farmers, Walter plants a variety of crops in rotation, that is changing the crops planted in a field each year to save and replace soil nutrients: oats one year, then corn and then hay.

Farm WomenIn addition to growing crops for cash and to use as feed, the Langdons, like most farmers, produce homegrown goods and sell them in the closest town. This is mainly the wife's duty: it is Rosanna who, helped by her oldest child, Frank, gathers the eggs from the hens, and sells them in town, together with her homemade butter. Rosanna also takes care of the garden in which she plants, with Frank's help: peas, cabbage, onions, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, radishes and beans. She knits and dyes wool using red cabbage, red onion skins and white vinegar. She takes care of the children and cooks, with the help of her younger sister, Eloise. Eloise herself isn't very domestically inclined, but most young girls her age bake and participate in baking contests at state fairs. Frank too, like all children on a farm, has various chores: when he is barely five, he has to help with the sheep-shearing, and later on, he feeds the cattle and the horses, works the fields, plants, fixes the fence and prunes the hedge.

Foreclosure title=The 1929 crash and the Great Depression, together with the drought in the mid-thirties had a deep impact on the farmers' lives. From over forty bushels an acre, in 1935 the Langdons' corn is down to thirty-five, and from ten cows they are down to four. Yet, even under these circumstances, Walter is able to buy a tractor to replace the horses, which, like most farmers at the time, he uses to plow the soil, plant, the seeds and harvest the crops. The Currents' situation is worse: because the bank raised the interest on their loan, they lose eighty acres, but agreeing to bankruptcy saves the rest of their land.

By 1937, many of the farmers recover in a spectacular way. The Currents have a very good year, and with the money, they put gaslights in the house and buy a car. The Langdons, too, are back on their feet: in 1938 Joe, the second-born male, experiments with hybridized corn seed, and a year later he obtains a record fifty-two bushels per acre. He sells his crops very well because of the war in Europe and he buys more seed with the money. By 1950, the Langdons have electricity and running water.

An early Fordson discing a field in Princess Anne County, VA in 1925, courtesy of Liftarn
Farm Women with Fowl in 1938, courtesy of Iowa Pathways
An Iowa farm foreclosure, courtesy of Iowa Pathways

This "beyond the book article" relates to Some Luck. It originally ran in October 2014 and has been updated for the July 2015 paperback edition.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Empire of Sand
    Empire of Sand
    by Tasha Suri
    Tasha Suri's debut novel, Empire of Sand, reads like something out of 1001 Arabian Nights, both ...
  • Book Jacket: In Byron's Wake
    In Byron's Wake
    by Miranda Seymour
    It's tempting to think that our age of celebrity worship coupled with the 24-hour news cycle is ...
  • Book Jacket: The Latecomers
    The Latecomers
    by Helen Klein Ross
    The Latecomers is the third novel written by acclaimed author Helen Klein Ross, following What Was ...
  • Book Jacket: The Inflamed Mind
    The Inflamed Mind
    by Edward Bullmore
    It is common knowledge that depression diminishes the quality of sufferers' lives, but few people ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
by Michelle Obama

An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    At the Wolf's Table
    by Rosella Postorino

    The internationally bestselling novel about the women conscripted to be Hitler's food tasters.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts

"Caitlin Hamilton Summie is our modern Chekhov."
- Savvy Verse & Wit


Word Play

Solve this clue:

Everything I H-D

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.