I read Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Thousand Acres many years ago. I also read Horse Heaven. As a horse owner and lover of horses and horse racing, I liked the second book better. But I also grew up on a farm and could identify with the agricultural aspects of both books.
This book is also about an Iowa farm family and covers the years 1920-1953. I usually mutter uh-oh when I see a family tree at the first of the book. That means you will need the tree to keep up with the characters. And you do. The time span is also a little daunting, considering it covers the Great Depression, WWII, and part of the Cold War. Smiley skillfully weaves her characters into historical events. Considering they come from an Iowa farm, this was no small feat.
As a writer not approaching Smiley’s stature, I admire her knowledge of farming and rural life and how she weaves historical events into a smooth narrative. Her knowledge and research are impeccable. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading it, her ability to write from the viewpoint of an infant in the beginning chapters is remarkable. I also felt as if the various narrators were talking to me. She peppers dialogue and narrative with witticisms and random thoughts that the character feels. Not many writers can do that without losing a reader.
This is not a page-turner. That usually suits me fine if the characters are fully developed. Unfortunately I don’t think they were. It could be my problem, but I still had to refer back to that family tree several times to remember who was who.