Golden Age is the third and final book in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga trilogy, which began with Some Luck. The Langdon family has spread far and wide since the first chapter of Some Luck opened in 1920, but both books start in the same place–the farm fields of Iowa. The story has now reached 1987, but by the end of the book Golden Age transports readers into the future, through to 2019, to complete the 100 years promised in the series name.
Since family members are living all over the country, the narrative moves around, spending time in California, Chicago, New York, Washington DC, and of course Iowa. Langdon family occupations and obsessions now include politics, wall street wheeling and dealing, linguistics, literature, horses, rodeo, climate change, and (of course, again) farming, so the story delves into all those areas. Among the characters are a former cult member, a college professor, an artist, a congressman, and the current crop of farmers. It makes for a fascinating mix of perspectives.
Like its two predecessors, Golden Age has a chapter for each of the years that it covers. The family tree at the front of the book has gotten a lot fuller, and I had to refer to it frequently in earlier chapters, but that became less necessary as the book went on, both because Smiley doesn’t focus on every Langdon descendant, and because she has a way of depicting her characters so they make an impression that sticks.
In this book I really enjoyed re-living history I can remember (and some I had forgotten) through the lives of several generations of Langdons–Smiley does a good job capturing the mood of the times she writes about. Taking the series as a whole, it was very interesting to see the wider views that a one hundred year story allows for, including all the changes farming has gone through since the 1920’s. Though these books don’t have traditional plot arcs there’s still a lot going on, and even when Smiley is just relating quotidian events in the characters lives, or their musings about the world around them, the story is somehow completely compelling.