[1925. Rosanna’s sister, Eloise, has been living with the family on the farm, but now has left]
Rosanna had never been especially patient; she felt herself stamping around the house in a state of permanent irritability, and had even written Eloise a letter down at Iowa State, where she was taking home economics (and doing very well – who was surprised at that?) living in a dorm with lots of girls, and learning to play the piano. To Eloise she wrote: “If I never sufficiently expressed my appreciation for your sense of order and unflagging energy, I am sorry. I appreciate it now.”
Eloise wrote back, “Can you make me a velveteen dress if I send you the pattern? I’m sure Ma would blanch at the very sight of the pattern! Tres au courant!” Yes, Ma would, thought Rosanna, but she made the dress. It was an easy pattern, and made her, too, feel tres au courant.
While she did the hem, she watched Irma and Joe with the everlasting box of dominoes, the box that she had given Joe last summer and that he would not let out of his sight.
observations: Jane Smiley is renowned for the wide variety of her books’ settings – from Greenland to Hollywood, taking in a New York apartment along the way. But Iowa – her home state – pops up a lot, as do horses and agricultural themes. This one is set on a farm in Iowa, and for a large part of the book it stays there. It’s the first part of a trilogy, following one family through the 20th century, and is both epic and small-scale at the same time.
She does something I’ve never seen before: she has one chapter for each year from 1920 to 1953, a scheme that will take the story forward in the subsequent books. Once you see it, you wonder why more writers don’t do it – in particular, it seems an ideal plan for Anne Tyler. In fact if I read the book without knowing, I would have guessed it was a Tyler book.
It’s a strange book: it kept me reading, but in a fairly dutiful way. There was an awful lot about the farm arrangements: ‘Walking dollars is what I call hogs’, and a funny ‘farmer joke’, about one who won a million dollars and, asked what he would do with it, replied “I guess I’ll just farm till it’s gone.”
There are many descriptions of the farm seen through the eyes of very small children, and I could have done without that. There were flashes of wonderful writing – ‘It was dim in the barn, but arrows and sparkles of light pierced the dark walls here and there’ – but most of it is written in a very flat, even tone.
And then around the middle there are a few magical passages. A description of the way siblings think of their parents ends with: ‘Six children, six different degrees of love and respect for her parents, and occasional discussions about exactly in what ways Mary and Otto Vogel deserved what they had gotten.’
There is a spell-binding description of Walter giving treasured mementoes to his children on his birthday, and I loved Eloise on ‘the perennial question of motherhood – how honest to be.’ Many of the conversations are excellent – great dialogue, with the randomness of real life and absolutely convincing.
And the picture of life seems very authentic too (even in its dullness) – a world where a young married couple have the wife’s sister living with them to help with the chores and the babies. Respectability and church, drought and Depression and fears for the future, the change from horses to a tractor and a car, attending family get-togethers bringing a pie for the shared meal: it is all there.
People do leave the farm. The oldest son Frank (a very intriguing character) goes to college, and goes to war. For me the book became a lot more entertaining when there was more from outside Iowa: there was a most unexpected turn when Frank gets caught up in the Red scares of the 1950s.
Although the book was something of a long haul, it is very memorable, and I expect I will go on to read the later instalments.
The picture is from the Cornell University archives, and shows, exactly, ‘simplified home sewing’ in 1925.