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A Jane Smiley Reading List

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Posted by Mary Ann

I am a big, big fan of Jane Smiley, and one reason I love her work is her phenomenal sense of place Take Iowa. I have spent a fair amount of time in Iowa because my sons went to college there. This fall I was visiting and I attended a photo exhibit of Iowans on the farm, taken in the early part of the 20th century. I felt like I was looking at the Langdons, the family she writes about in “Some Luck.” The rugged, much-worn clothes, because people just didn’t have a lot of clothes then; they made do. The strong, stolid teams of horses, who seemed almost like family members – indeed, a family’s survival depended on them. The stoic faces of the men, doing backbreaking work,  harvesting corn with that horse team, running sawmills in the snow. The half-smiles on the faces of women being photographed, because being Iowans, they weren’t sure they wanted to be quite that, you know, showy.

Jane Smiley knows Iowa. She earned an MA, an MFA and a PhD from the University of Iowa, living there from 1972 to 1981. She taught in the 1980s and 1990s at Iowa State University in Ames. She kept teaching there, even after she relocated her main residence to California.

She has at least three books that I know of set in Iowa; the first was “A Thousand Acres.” This 1991 novel earned Smiley a Pulitzer Prize. It tells the “King Lear” story, but resets it on a thousand-acre Iowa farm. An aging Iowa farmer decides to incorporate his farm and hand over ownership to his three daughters. The younger daughter objects to this arrangement, she is removed from the agreement and all hell breaks loose as a lot of very buried family secrets emerge. Thus far, the Langdons don’t have the same version of deep dark secrets to reveal. Stay tuned – “Some Luck” is the first book in a trilogy.

1995’s “Moo” is set at a university in a rural state very, very like Iowa, at a big agricultural university. “Moo” has a huge cast of characters, including a pig named Earl Butz, whose main purpose in life is to eat as much as he can and grow as large as he possibly can (one review called Earl Butz, who was white, “a landlocked version of Moby Dick.”).

“Moo” is an academic farce. There’s a lot of scheming for prestige, power and good grades.  One reviewer remarked that while Smiley certainly has an astute eye for the pretentions and weaknesses of her characters, there’s only one real villain in this book – the anti-intellectual governor of the state, who keeps cutting the university budget. Smiley also showed her gift, on great display in “Some Luck,” for the real life sights, sounds and smells of farming.

Another of Smiley’s preoccupations appears to be horses. At last count, she had 16. When she lived in Iowa City, she had a nonpaying job at a riding stable exercising the horses – she said getting to ride was payment enough for her.

That experience led to her first novel, 1980’s “Barn Blind.” It is the story of Kate Karlson, who owns a horse farm in the Illinois countryside. Kate has four children and has a rule book that they violate at their peril – she is determined to make each of them into the equestrian champion she failed to become. She loves her children but is simultaneously blind to their needs; the relentless cycle of caring for, training and preparing the horses for the shows takes precedence over everything else.

Smiley’s 2000 novel “Horse Heaven” is set in the world of high-stakes thoroughbred racing in southern California, and includes a list of colorful characters, both human and horse. The novel begins with four horses, all yearlings, with names like Epic Steam and Busta Bob. It follows their fortunes; one reviewer said that “Through an amazing imaginative leap,” Smiley “enters into their heads and lets us see the world as they do.” The human characters – the jockeys, the owners, the trainers, the veterinarians – do perhaps a better job of loving their equine charges than they do their fellow humans. I read an interview with Smiley that said she had an inordinate amount of fun writing this book. Readers will have fun, too.

Finally, Smiley wrote a nonfiction book, 2004’s “A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money and Luck,” in which she talks about her own experiences as a horse owner, which includes, as you might surmise, a fair amount of time at the track. She is an astute observer of horse behavior and horse psychology. Readers who love horses will go for this one, too.

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