A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare's King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.
Anyway, A Thousand Acres is kind of a revisionist adaptation of King Lear. Because of this, the read is greatly enhanced by knowing something about King Lear. I'm not saying it's necessary to go read the play or anything, but the Sparknotes summary adds another layer to the experience: Summary I'm generally a sucker for that kind of thing- I like to re-examine the old from a new angle- but this really struck a chord with me. Instead of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, you get Ginny, Rose, and Caroline. And though I remember thinking the two older daughters were just basically greedy and evil in King Lear when he read it in high school, Smiley definitely shakes things up by having Ginny, the oldest daughter, be the narrator. In A Thousand Acres, plain evil is eschewed for multiple shades of grey.
A Thousand Acres is considerably more sympathetic toward the two older daughters and harder on the failings in the father and Caroline- at least internally. Interestingly, the spectators to the action within the novel still largely seem to view the two older daughters as evil, manipulative, and greedy, while their father is seen as heroically tragic- just what you're supposed to think at the end of King Lear. However, there's more to the story in A Thousand Acres, even if it doesn't become general knowledge or really change people's opinions. Indeed, what seems to be the real evil in A Thousand Acres is an unwillingness to accept anything beyond the surface- in other words, seeing things only in terms of black and white. More information makes things murkier, which the most frustrating characters avoid at all costs. The father and Caroline simply refuse to hear anything that they don't want to- anything that changes their core beliefs about themselves and their family. Interesting that Caroline is a lawyer, supposedly wanting all the facts to find the truth... Although I guess thinking in terms of black and white would actually be helpful for a lawyer- you only want to support your side of the case, afterall.
After reading this novel, I'm excited to watch the film adaptation sometime soon. I don't want to get my hopes up too much though.... I suspect the book blows the movie out of the water. The tagline of the movie is " Best friends. Bitter rivals. Sisters." (IMDB). This indicates to me that it'll probably concentrate on the falling out of the two older sisters. While that's important, I'm not sure it's the defining storyline of the novel...
In the spring of 1979, the patriarch of the Cook family in Zebulon County, Iowa, decides to split his farm between his 3 daughters. The decision comes as a surprise -- he had been a farmer all his life and stepping away is not what anyone expected. Except that one of them, his youngest, does not show enough enthusiasm so is cut out and leaves for her lawyer career (it is 1979, invasion won't happen - the battles when they come will be in court). In case you had ever read King Lear, you already know where this one is going... or can go. Smiley does not change the main fabric of the play... but she shifts it.
The second family drama is also in full play - being born out of wedlock is not such a big deal anymore so the son is a draft-dodger instead.
Shakespeare gave us the "external viewer" viewpoint; Smiley gives the oldest daughter, Ginny, the speaker part. And that changes things - partially because now we may be dealing with unreliable narrator and partially because Goneril was never given a chance to explain herself. But that shift also means that we see the underside of the play - the good son is almost just a shadow because the 2 older sisters rarely have anything to do with him.
The novel follows the plot of the play faithfully... which initially worried me - because it almost sounded like a recipe for a predictable plotline. But instead it helped - if you knew what was coming, you were always looking into things thinking on how they tie into it; if you did not know (because you never read King Lear), some of the turns may come as a shock.
But when you remove the veneer of King Lear, you find another novel under it - the novel of the changing times of 1979 in rural America when the farmers were facing the changes in the world. Smiley writes this novel with as much mastery as she does the overlaying story - with all the nitty gritty details (get yourself access to wikipedia if you had not read about farming before -- a lot of the descriptions are extremely detailed but they are done by a farmer's daughter who is herself a farmer.
And as a third layer is the back story of Zebulon county and the Cook family - which is the story of the people that made Iowa and its neighboring states and how American farming came to be what it was.
There is a lot of personal heartbreak in this novel - on all 3 levels of the text and there are awful things that happen and that had happened. The evil sisters of the play turn into the victims here (how much they are and how much of it is the narrator is open to interpretation) and the formerly good characters appear to be either vindictive or just shadows. Old secrets also resurface - some of them so disturbing that it makes you wonder if another play's line about things being rotten should not apply here. The sexual tension of the play is also here - as it cannot not be - and unlike the bawdiness of Shakespeare, it is also explored a lot more carefully.
The end is expected - everything dies. Not literally this time (although enough people do die) - but a way of a life is dead nevertheless and the people still standing are different people.
It is a hard novel to read in some parts - some of them because of the farming narrative, some of them because of the pure awfulness of the past of some of the characters. And it is not a happy story - for anyone. But then... the dying of a way of life never is.
Up to this point, I was very interested and engaged, but though I knew everything was going down hill, I was not prepared for the nasty turn that some (actually most) of the characters would take. A little over half way through the book, I was so sickened by the characters who were either despicable people or horribly damaged people that I did not want to pick up the book. I really don't like reading books where everyone is miserable and also are bad people. But I kept going and in the end I'm glad I finished it. There isn't much redemption for any of the characters and there's no way to wrap up neatly what happens in this book, but I appreciated the writing and character development (even though I didn't like the characters) and it did leave me thinking. It's certainly a memorable book, though it's not really leaving me wanting to rush out and read more of Jane Smiley's work.
I'm edging on the high side with my star rating because I think that down the road my opinion will improve. We shall see.
The poison his farming leaches into the soil, that kills one elder daughter and renders the other sterile, is the poison of patriarchy. It destroys all the men in the story too, of course, which is perfectly accurate.
And the struggle of both elder daughters, to be something more, even just a little more, than inhabited space. And the fact that it's the youngest who defends her father, hates her sisters and turns against them completely - but only because the elder daughters protected her from him so she doesn't know what a monster he really is. Like the younger vs the older generation of feminists.
But it was the perfect pitch on the emotions that really astonished me. Amazed me. I liked "Moo", but this is really brilliant.
Do I feel angry or lost or just blasted like the prairie farm landscape after a dry summer storm? There is a grey and tragic pall over whatever it was I just experienced in Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres." It was as inescapable as a tornado, that book, both fascinating and destructive. At first there was just a hint of a tempest brewing, a stiff breeze and a feeling of having been startled--psychological tension--but then it got windier and windier and darker and finally shocking. And now I'm looking back on the story not knowing which way is up or if it was a tornado or just the hand of a deathless literary god.
Like a scavenger I have returned to the scene of the carnage in my mind to pick apart the corpses of the story and its characters. Smiley roughly formed the plot and its undertones around Shakespeare's King Lear (I can picture her piecing together this notion physically, like a potter at a wheel), and the frame of this hangs throughout the novel like loose clothes. Not quite hugging all of the curves, but a general fit. This is likely the best of possible circumstances: too much adherence and it would have slid beyond concept into rehash. Much less and it would have lost the plot entirely.
Our Lear is actually called Larry, an unlovable, demanding patriarch of a thousand-acre spread in Iowa. He starts as a one-dimensional curmudgeon antagonistic to change or confrontation. His three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline (that is: Goneril, Regan, Cordelia in the play), orbit him in an apparent swath of appeasements and housekeeping. Our first glimpse of the Cook family is in grim snippets of submission, towing the line, servitude: a motionless destiny. Ginny and Rose's bland-faced husbands ride the cycle of farming and related demands, squashed under Larry/Lear's thumb.
In one drunk moment at a neighbor's party, Larry announces his intention to divide the farm between his daughters. One brief moment of hesitation on Caroline's part ends in a door slammed in her face and assumed, instant alienation from the rest of the brood. Readers of Shakespeare know how this goes.
For much of the book Larry's actions seem unmotivated, sprung from his thick head fully-formed, perhaps. He seems a demanding tyrnat. But then the whole book is inside out--it's Ginny (Goneril) who is our protagonist, who is narrating, who, in King Lear, is one of the conniving, treacherous sisters trying to grub as much possible land and power from her ailing father. Is Ginny winding her story around, dipping past events and motives she doesn't want us to see in her father and herself? What really did prompt him to give up the farm? Is Ginny evading, lying?
Ginny does have us in her hand. Enough so that the betrayal of her marriage (portrayed by her as blank and duty-bound, mostly) seems not a sin but a liberation she is entitled to. Instead, she would argue, it's Rose who is the insidious one, Rose who is evil and desperate and hopeless. Ginny is a pushover, sure, but we never get to know the depth of her guile. She has it hidden somewhere.
The first half of the book is intense but survivable. But the storm that unleashes both the symbolism and force of King Lear here also leads to darker days, secrets and unstoppable powers that are not escapable. There is very much a sense of no return, and it's hard to watch without incanting "oh, no, oh, no, oh no." We know from its outset it will be tragedy, the question is how far Smiley will take it.
Like a survivor of a storm myself now I feel ghostly and white and shaky. Shaky because the foundations of my understanding of Lear and Larry are tumbled upside-down and furious. Was Lear ever pitiable? Was there ever a suggestion in Shakespeare that he was anything but a vindictive patriarch? Or is Ginny pulling the wool over my eyes with such deftness that I missed the part when she was poisoning me? And whose truth is the real truth? This will require some thinking.
There is another character in this story, though, and this is what makes the book interesting: the farm itself. The life of farmers naturally revolves around cycles of weather, the condition of the soil, and a constant awareness of nature. The family farms with traditional chemicals - pesticides, herbicides, and other poisons. The land, the enrichment of the land for farming, and the slow poisoning of the land is a constant undercurrent in the book, and ultimately drives the action of the main characters. Smiley manages, in a very subtle way, to make a point about organic farming, without ever really bringing it up.
The book is well-written: the characters are real and engaging, even if few of them are likable. The descriptions are vivid, and even though there isn't a whole lot of action in the book, the story is still suspenseful.
It is, however, very sad. The characters are so real that we share their pain, and even must learn to turn off our emotions as they have, to dull ourselves to the tragedy of the storyline. In the end, I'm not sure that all of this pain was rewarded: I generally hope, when reading a really tragic book, that I will come away from it enriched. This book was enriching, but not quite in proportion to the pain within its pages. (Perhaps I might feel differently about this if I read the book at a different time - this time around, I wasn't quite prepared for the tragedy.)
I haven't read King Lear, but it's really not necessary to read first as A Thousand Acres stands on its own just as well. After all the events of the story, Ginny reflects on what happened - what went wrong - after her father's fateful decision. Because we're in a tight first person narrative, there are so many unknowns and unanswerable questions: What made Larry act as he did? Caroline? Can we ever know or understand another person? The first half of the story is a slow setting the stage, the plotting deliberate, and the writing descriptive. The characters are deeply unhappy. If I didn't have to read it for book club, I probably wouldn't have finished; it made for a difficult read but a great discussion.
I have to admit that I read this book in short stretches over the course of 6 or 7 weeks. This is not because the book is not good, or did not hold my interest. On the contrary. Smiley captures the emotional ups and downs of these characters so well that the book felt too intense for me to read it straight through. I live in Iowa. I grew up on a farm in Missouri. I know people and situations like the ones about which Smiley writes. And usually that makes me more intensely critical of an author - quick to point out scenes that do not ring true. But Smiley writes with insight, showing multiple sides of complex situations and creating characters that are not caricatures but multi-dimensional and true. This is not an easy book to read, but it is beautifully written.
With that in mind, I began A Thousand Acres with a small amount of trepidation. Using the plot and characters of King Lear as inspiration, this tale of a Midwestern patriarch's attempt to confer ownership of the family farm on this three daughters could have stuck close to the Shakespearean story and suffered from some of the same faults. But instead Jane Smiley took the situation and some of the tragedy of the tale, then rotated the point of view to one of the daughters and layered on characterizations that set these particular characters, not their literary forebears, on their own particular tragic paths.
Smiley also makes her setting more than a mythic background. She explores both the pleasures and pains of farm life, and she exposes some aspects of the underside of small-town life. Her feminine perspective gives an important slant on these topics, taking the viewpoint of someone forced into a secondary role in a burdensome life she did not choose. She also provides a clear-eyed, elegiac view of the fate of the family farm at a time when corporate agribusiness was putting an end to a way of life.
But the quality of the writing, both narrative and descriptive, and the logical development of the plot raise it above the usual fodder and make it both an fascinating and fulfilling read.
It starts off a rather slow paced, but never tedious, story about American farmers. The descriptions of the landscape are beautiful but not excessive and the characters are strong, well-drawn personalities without falling back on stereotypes.
The patriarch is a chauvinist ego-maniac who I disliked from the start, one sister is a little too fond of blind-siding everyone with her 'frank' observations and the narrator's husband is so passive he hardly seemed conscious, just enough to irritate me but little else.
And the protagonist: she lacks backbone.
Despite this motley cast of characters the narrative unfolds so naturally that you are drawn into their world and when, in the middle of the book, the family drama explodes my heart was racing with emotion as I eagerly turned the pages.
I was pleasantly surprised that the author felt no need to be either too kind or too cruel to her characters and although there is pain and tragedy the main character, at least, does seem to find some peace.
This was one of the Pulitzers I had been looking forward to reading the most because farming has been in my family for generations. I always appreciate books that depict rural living. Farming is a way of life but it is also a business, and when business and family are combined it can sometimes be a touchy situation. This novel explored that aspect very well. Add to that family secrets, problems with aging, and ‘keeping up appearances’ for the neighbors and you have a very interesting and engaging book.
One of the interesting sidelines of the book for me was the interest in organic farming and the harm of pesticides, etc. to the environment and human health. I am not a fan of the direction that farming is going with GMOs and the use of hormones for livestock. This has trickled down to the local farmer as well, and is not limited anymore to just corporate farms. It’s unfortunate that many family farms have had to resort to these practices to compete; I don’t think they fully realize the risks being done to human health.
I’m not sure I would have chosen this novel for the Pulitzer. To begin with, the plot is somewhat borrowed from Shakespeare’s King Lear. I am of the opinion that the prize should be given to a completely original work. There were also aspects of the relationships among the sisters that were a bit unbelievable for me. Still, I’m glad I read it and deemed it worthy of at least 4 stars.
…[O]n this tiny rise, you could see our buildings, a mile distant, at the southern edge of the farm. A mile to the east, you could see three silos that marked the northeastern corner, and if you raked your gaze from the silos to the house and barn, then back again, you would take in the immensity of the piece of land my father owned, six hundred forty acres, a whole section, paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth.
Never a pleasant man, Larry is becoming more taciturn and remote as he ages, chosing not involve himself in conversation nor answer questions directed to him. He's demanding, insisting, for example, that someone have his breakfast on his table at 6 a.m., no delays, no substitutions. His temper is always cocked and ready to blow. His sudden and implacable decision to transfer ownership of his farm to his two older daughters triggers internecine warfare amongst himself, his daughters and their husbands, and even some neighbors. If you know King Lear, you know the story is an inevitable, slow descent, injuring everyone swept into it. But this King Lear is told from a daughter's perspective, from a woman's viewpoint.
At a family picnic, Larry lays out his plan:
He glanced at me, then at Caroline, and, looking at her all the while, he said, "We're going to form this corporation, Ginny, and you girls are all going to have shares, then we're going to build this new Slurrystore, and maybe a Harvestore, too, and enlarge the hog operation." He looked at me. "You girls and Ty and Pete and Frank [Caroline's fiance] are going to run the show. You'll each have a third part in the corporation. What do you think?"
…In spite of that inner clang, I tried to sound agreeable. "It's a good idea."
Rose said, "It's a great idea."
Caroline said, "I don't know."
…My father glared at her. In the sudden light of the porch, there was no way to signal her to shut up, just shut up, he'd had too much to drink. He said, "You don't want it, my girl, you're out. It's as simple as that." Then he pushed himself up from his chair and lumbered past me down the porch steps and into the darkness.
Several days later, with the legal papers prepared, the family again gathers, this time with attorney Ken LaSalle. Larry is impatient; "Okay, Kenny, let's get to it. Now's the time." The attorney wants to wait a bit. Ginny sees Caroline coming up onto the porch, "composing herself to be conciliatory." She starts to open the door. "But my father stepped around me and took the door in his hand and slammed it shut in her face, and then he whirled Ken around with a hand on his arm, and said, 'Now.' We went into the dining room."
With the transfer completed, work begins to transform and expand an existing dairy barn for a big hog operation. Tension is up, not simply between Larry and his daughters, but between husbands and wives, and between sisters. Then Larry has a tantrum mostly directed at Ginny.
He leaned his face toward mine. "You don't have to drive me around any more, or cook the goddamned breakfast or clean the goddamned house." His voiced modulated into a scream. "Or tell me what I can do and what I can't do. You barren whore! I know all about you, you slut. You've been creeping here and there all your life, making up to this one and that one. But you're not really a woman, are you? I don't know what you are, just a bitch, is all, just a dried-up whore bitch."
In the face of this withering tirade, Ginny flashes back to her childhood, to an incident triggered by her loss of a shoe.
…[I]t was like he turned to fire right there. He came for me and started spanking me with the flat of his hand, on the rear and the thighs. I backed up till I got between the range and the window, and I could hear Mommy saying, "Larry! Larry! This is crazy!" He turned to her and said, "You on her side?"
Mommy said, "No, but—"
"Then you tell her to come out from behind there. There's only one side here, and you'd better be on it."
Her attention is recalled to Larry's current outburst.
…"How can you treat your father like this? I flattered you when I called you a bitch! What do you want to reduce me to? I'll stop this building! I'll get the land back! I'll throw you whores off this place. You'll learn what it means to treat your father like this. I curse you! You'll never have children, Ginny, you haven't got a hope. And your children [speaking to Rose] are going to laugh when you die!"
He storms off into a deluge, a downpour so intense he wanders aimlessly for more than an hour before a neighbor finds him and takes him into his house. Thereafter, Larry stays with the neighbor, refusing to stay in the house he's lived in most of his life. He has the lawyer file papers to revoke the land transfer. The bank halts the construction. In short order he's being ushered about by Caroline. Larry's moving to Des Moines is the word on the streets of all the Zebulon County towns. His application for revocation is pending.
During this lull, Ginny is in a local clothing shop when she sees Larry, escorted by Caroline, approaching the door. She grabs a couple of blouses and ducks into the changing booth. They're shopping for socks and underwear, when Larry sits and wheedles his daughter to sit beside him. Ginny hears every word of their chat, but remains hidden until they leave. Back at the farm, Ginny goes straight to Rose:
I fell into an armchair. I said, "I was in Roberta's and Daddy and Caroline came in. I can't tell you the tone of voice he used to her. All soft and affectionate, but with something underneath that I can't describe. I thought I was going to faint."
…Rose gazed down at me with utter seriousness, her eyes deep and dark, her mouth carved from marble. She said, "Say it."
"It happened like you said. I realized it when I was making the bed…in my old room. I lay down on the bed, and I remembered."
I think this book is a hell of an achievement. Smiley has produced a fresh, female-oriented take on an old story. She's enriched it with memorable, recognizable characters, pouring out the full range of emotion such a story provokes. I guess that now I must read [King Lear] to see if it measures up.
The book uses the story of King Lear very loosely, as more of a jumping off point than a true re-telling. We learn about Ginny's frequent miscarriages and troubled relationship with her sisters and father. Her neighbor (a loose recreation of Edmund) becomes a distraction from her sedate marriage as the rest of her life spirals into conflict.
In this version of the story, Ginny and Rose are the victims and Larry/Lear is a controlling, abusive father who has been exploiting his daughters for years. Caroline is spoiled and oblivious to much of the family's history and so she doesn't see her father for who he really is. This twist of the original tale reminds me of Gregory Maguire's books (Wicked, etc.), which rewrite fairy tales from the 'villain's' point-of-view.
After awhile I felt really frustrated by Ginny's character, she's so weak and so malleable. I had a hard time connecting with her. Rose is hard to love, but at least she's honest about how she feels. The book drags a bit and I felt like it could have cut a lot without hurting the plot. I'm glad I read it to compare it with King Lear, but it won't stick with me like the original will.
'I have often thought that the death of a parent is the one misfortune from which there is no compensation.'
The reader meanders through this story as if traveling a country road but be watchful, the author, occasionally, throws you a curve ball which makes you stop, back up and travel that sentence again thinking, "What?! Did she just say what I thought she said?!
Highly recommend you pluck this one off the shelf soon.
It chronicles the evolution of farming in the mid-west (to an extent) so that, while it breaks your heart that the 'family farm era' has passed, you realize that it was inevitable, natural, and -- if it encompasses the family secrets that the Cook farm did -- necessary. The tradition of farming, then, acts as a metaphor for the changes this family goes through, just as weather and eyes/seeing are themes in the original play.
The story is almost a coming-of-age novel, but it's not teens who come of age; rather, it is Ginny, the easy-going sister who narrates the book, who loses her innocence.
[I think it's a great twist from the original [book:King Lear] to have the oldest sister narrate, when I expected it to be the youngest sister, or even third person narration. (aside: I kept thinking of Ginny as the middle sister, and one of the characters in the book even says Rose acts more like the eldest than Ginny does. This aspect of the novel would be interesting to explore in comparison with the [author:Shakespeare] version.)]
It helped me to know that this novel did not have the murders in it that [book:Lear] does, yet the novel could still be classified as tragedy. The key events of [book:King Lear] -- like the storm and blindness -- are maintained in [book:A Thousand Acres], which is great. And the key players are present, too, though Harold and especially Loren do take a backseat in the latter half.
One of my gauges to measure the quality of a book is the number of quotations or truth-lines the book has that resonate with me, even if the circumstances of the characters don't match my own. This book had many truth-lines and [author:Jane Smiley] does an excellent job at portraying real emotions and commentaries on how people deal with their lot in life.
This book deserved its Pulitzer Prize.
This is not a novel you idly force someone to read. There are tones and undercurrents in the novel that are dark and foreboding. It was emotional for me and I don't think I had it that bad considering some of the sex crimes that could have happened. Just... reader beware.
After I read this, I read some of her earlier stuff and didn't think too much of them, but her books from Thousand Acres on have been increasingly good (with the exception of Good Faith which I thought was only pretty good).
In fact, she does a wonderful job.
In the first 20 pages you have all the elements. A stubborn man, who knows exactly what he thinks is right, and who is used to making his own world around him (the land which Laurence Cook farms was created out of marshland - "However much these acres looked like a gift of nature, not of God, they were not. We went to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks"). A sense of the fragility of familial relations - stories of other families in which "generations of silence ... flow from a single choice", not to mention the precariousness of everything which looks most secure ("the grass is gone, now, and the marshes ... but the sea is still beneath our feet, and we walk on it"). And finally, a stubborn comment from the youngest child, who refuses to indulge her father and "had simply spoken as a woman rather than as a daughter. That was something, I realised in a flash, that Rose and I were pretty careful never to do".
And you prepare for the tragedy to unroll. And it does - with a lot of parallels to the King Lear story (I think right down to the fact that the first 5 parts of the book mirror the events in the five acts of the play). But of course, what happens is not quite what you expect. And that brilliantly highlights one of the themes of the book - the fact that we all have our narratives about our lives (and the lives of other people), and the way that we respond to things which challenge those narratives.