A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand AcresA Thousand Acres
by Jane Smiley
Anchor 2003
ISBN: 978-1400033836
371 p.p.

I came to Smiley through a love of Shakespeare—during a Global Shakespeare film class where we were watching Kozintev’s take on King Lear, we got into a discussion about Lear’s relationship with his daughters and conversation came to A Thousand Acres. My professor went to school with Smiley and said that when the author sat down to re-invent King Lear she came to the story with the perspective that Lear sexually abused his daughters.

So I came to this book looking for scandal, the way I always wanted to read something sensational, taboo or banned (I try to pull a few titles from the Banned Book list every year and read them just because they’re banned).

Instead of sensationalized, Smiley presented me with something a little different. She painted a picture of isolation in a great expanse, of solitude—of creeping, haunting solitude—that only occurs when you are surrounded by unchanging scenery. Even though Lear is a tragedy, A Thousand Acres doesn’t strike you as a tragedy in the beginning—and even when you feel like the scales are tipping in that direction, they never do. The action is narrated by Ginny, the oldest daughter of Larry Cook (our Lear) as she tells us how she understood her father deciding, seemingly randomly, to sign over his thousand acre farm to his three daughters. Here, the similarities to Lear are fairly straightforward: there are three daughters, the older two accept the resignation of Lear, while the youngest refuses it and, in turn, is rejected by her father.

You get the feeling from Ginny’s nervous routines—cooking breakfast, cleaning, cooking lunch, cooking dinner, cooking supper (and yes, I learned that those were actually two separate meals)—and her role as caretaker to both her father and sister Rose, that something is wrong; something is mishandled. The way in which Larry seems dominating and aggressive, while being fed and having his laundry done for him is fascinating; he represents everything about a domineering father that readers can easily identify with, fear or awe. From Ginny’s twisting stomach, her anxiety that she constantly apologizes for feeling, for her nauseatingly repetitive need to foster peace where clearly there is growing tension, commands my attention. She feels like a child who is trying to tell you something but can’t bring themself to do so.

In Lear, Goneril and Reagan are both often read as domineering and bitchy in contrast to Lear’s insanity and fragility—a reading I rejected. When I first read Lear, I told my class that I saw, and sympathized, with the girls’ role as caretaker to an aging father who neither wanted, nor particularly respected, the care given to him. It was easy for me to see how women in their own households, prevented from independent lives by the nagging persistence of a father who insists on being their sole focus, might come to a point where they were exhausted by caretaking. However, Lear lacks a detailed motive for this exhaustion.

In A Thousand Acres, the draining schedule of the daughters, the routine that never ceases, communicates that exhaustion without bashing you over the head with pleas for sympathy. I knew, absolutely, why the girls would be exhausted and send their father out in the epic rainstorm. I was so caught up in their exhaustion that I found I had forgotten about their abuse. When Rose confronts Ginny about the abuse, we learn Ginny has repressed the memories—repressed them so thoroughly that she believes her sister is lying. When the memories come back, you weep with her—the daughter who slaves to please her father only to be called a devious and conniving bitch, but was actually acting out an empty cycle of placation to a man that scared, beat, and abused her.

Ginny’s journey through processing this abuse and the knowledge of how her father, her sisters, and their farm shaped her identity, is stirring right through to the last thirty pages. At the very end, this suffers from what I like to call “Return of the King Syndrome”; it has about three distinct endings, but keeps progressing to the next one instead of stopping. Personally, I could’ve done without the last couple chapters which feel like they are lingering on past their welcome, but I recognize that Smiley likely did this intentionally. Like the ghost of the abusive and controlling father who haunts Ginny, we are haunted by a narrative that demands us to read until it is finished, not until we are finished.

Something that I could see forming while I read but didn’t really explore, is the rich, rich landscape (pun intended) for eco-critical scholarship on this novel. The farm evokes a sense of Mother Nature being pillaged and raped by men and their machines—men who are eventually overwhelmed by how little control they actually have over nature. The underlying organic, farm-to-table, anti-chemical agenda of this book makes me stop and awe at Smiley’s quiet brilliance—this Lear literally poisons the womb of his daughter with the tools of his own arrogant and greedy farming.

This book makes me want to reach for another Smiley and certainly makes me want to hunt down the 1997 Jocelyn Moorhouse film to see if it meets the standard established by this vividly quiet take on the Shakespearean classic.

Jane SmileyJane Smiley is a Missouri-born novelist, a former Fulbright Scholar, and professor at Iowa State University. She currently lives in California and has a gloriously long list of published work.


One response to “A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful review of a book that I loved when I read it in the mid-90s. A gentle reminder: instead of “themself” (last sentence of the fourth paragraph), you need to use himself/herself or themselves. My high school English students do this a lot. Also, the bio of Smiley at the end of the review needs to be updated. She hasn’t taught at Iowa State for nearly 20 years. If you want to read some more Jane Smiley, I recommend Moo, Good Faith, and her early novel, Duplicate Keys. Her critical analysis, 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, is also excellent.

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