Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

I must say that this American reading challenge has completely transformed my summer holiday reading. No sooner do I lay down one extraordinary novel than another comes along. I had read Jane Smiley before, but the novel on that occasion was Moo and, at that time, my son was still very young and demanding. It passed in a whirlwind of episodic scenes and characters that left little impression on my sleep-deprived mind. The experience of A Thousand Acres suggests I should go back and reread, but then again what gripped me in this narrative was its terrible, claustrophobic trajectory into disaster. The tightness of its plotline, the concentration of its ideas, and the beauty of Smiley’s prose forged together into an arrow’s flight into meltdown. It’s often said that the twentieth century is the place where tragedy is replaced by trauma, but this novel seemed to me to narrate their convergence, the moment when one creates the other.

The story focuses on the Cook family and the bountiful thousand acre farm they share. Head of the family is brutal patriarch, Larry Cook, a perverse God within his own household and a prosperous farmer and businessman. His daughters, Rose and our narrator, Ginny, live next door and with husbands, Pete and Ty, compose a farming cooperative, although it is clear that it has been a dictatorship up until the story begins. The third daughter, Caroline, has escaped the farming legacy and lives away from her family, practicing law. The novel opens with the shocking moment when Larry Cook, a little drunk and overwrought at a neighbouring farmer’s party, declares his retirement and his intention to make over the farm to his daughters. What is initially seen as the moment when dutiful offspring are rightly acknowledged becomes a nightmare of epic proportions. The first rift occurs when Caroline decides she does not want her share of the farm, but this is only the hairline crack that provides a harbinger of what is to come. Within weeks of his retirement, Larry Cook succumbs to a violent and abusive madness that tears the family apart, humiliating them before the rest of the local farming community. Cook’s madness seems to arise from a clash between his declining faculties, and his refusal to be ‘told what to do’ by his daughters. It seems to be an exacerbation of his natural tyrannical character, but it is represented to the county at large as the consequence of the heartless and unnatural lack of respect shown him by Ginny and Rose. In fact nothing could be further from the truth; as the narrative unfolds so it becomes chillingly clear that Rose and Ginny have been long term handmaidens of their father’s every desire, particularly after their mother’s early death. The authoritative figure so admired within the farming community turns out to conceal a beast of a man who has shamelessly beaten and abused his two eldest daughters.

Now I don’t know much about the story of King Lear to which this narrative cleverly appeals. Many years ago I saw an atrocious student production of it, in which only a tenth of the dialogue was spoken by a cast overcome by an excessive fit of improvisation. At some point in rehearsals, one of the actors had clearly said ‘It’s not fair that only King Lear gets to be mad!’, and the director had agreed. I only knew who King Lear was because I recognized the student playing him. But I do know that Cordelia’s love for her father is contrasted with Regan and Goneril’s hypocritical, grasping domination. A Thousand Acres provides a masterly twist on this scenario. Cordelia – or Caroline – can love her father better than Rose and Ginny because they have traded with their bodies for hers to be left unmolested. She can love him, because she has never had to love him the way they did. Caroline is in blissful ignorance over the fate she has been rescued from, and to the end accuses her sisters of an unnatural lack of affection towards their father. ‘The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories’ Ginny tells us, and the clash of differing narratives provides one of the hypnotic conflicts in this moving tale, a clash that has impacted upon each and every character in the drama and cannot be resolved.

Paternal abuse has turned Rose hard and angry: ‘Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps on betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction. We have to stand up to that, and say, at least to ourselves, that what he’s done before is still with us, still right here in this room until there’s true remorse. Nothing will be right until there’s that.’ But Rose’s anger will remain unanswered, for the madness that has overtaken Larry Cook appears to be a final barrier against self-awareness. Ginny, by contrast, is stuck in peace-making inertia, perpetually afraid, uncertain, empty, the five miscarriages she has suffered standing as metaphor for her inability to create new life out of the broken, battered remains of her own.

Focalising the narrative viewpoint through Ginny’s eyes makes this a powerful tale of inequality, of victimhood. The narrative returns restlessly to the rift between appearance and reality, with Ginny and Rose struggling to maintain above all else the clean and well-kept look of the farm as they fight a legal battle with their father for its possession. In 1970s Midwestern America the surface appearance still holds infinite power, and those who are forced to live the dark, uncomfortable reality concealed by it are locked into victimized stasis. ‘At home, it was galling to think of how others were talking about us, bad enough to think of their ridicule or disapproval, but worse to think how they were surely entertained by us, how this stinging, goading, angry self-consciousness that impelled me every day, every minute, to seek relief was nothing to them, something they couldn’t feel and hardly ever gave a thought to.’ Whilst this is ostensibly about the neighbours, it is equally about the unspoken battle for recognition between Cook and his daughters. A year or so ago I undertook some literary research on child abuse, and whilst I’d felt quite calm reading the necessary material, I wrote about it with a white-hot passion that almost alarmed me. When you have children of your own, the need to protect the innocent is not a rational edict but a blood-drumming, half-crazed imperative. The thing is that children have to love and be loved to ensure their existence, and so it is all too easy to abuse them. The power adults have over children is fundamentally disproportionate, for law, security and everyday survival are all in their hands. The young are at an immediate disadvantage, for the inarticulate, unformed child is hard to recognize and understand when measured against adult standards. The brilliance of Smiley’s writing lies in never stating this explicitly, but in creating a fictional world of wounding imbalance, between the vastness of the land and the tiny figures who attempt to tame it, between the authoritative rule of men and the domestic servitude of women, between the public version of stories and their ugly, private reality. Wherever you look in this tale, an impossible battle for recognition and recompense needs to be fought, but the injustice can never be righted, just as the distortion wrought by abuse can never be fully healed.

What can be done when those in authority abandon reason and compassion? What can be made of stories that are impossible to tell because unlikely to be believed? It’s a measure of Smiley’s skill here that such questions perpetually inform the narrative while it moves steadily and inexorably towards its tragic conclusion. The rich, complex metaphorical dimension of this novel fits beautifully into the lucid, gripping plotline, and not a word is wasted or misplaced. Most of all, this novel moved me emotionally, made me feel the lost desperation of its characters, without ever letting sentiment cloud its hard-edged brilliance. Actually what I most feel now, typing this, is inarticulate in relation to its subtle eloquence. If you haven’t read it already, go and do so now, that’s really all there is to say.

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16 thoughts on “Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres

  1. I haven’t read this novel yet but after this review it goes immediately on ‘the list.’ I think this is one of my favorite posts of yours – your passionate reaction to the text is stronger than I’ve felt before and your conviction behind this novel comes through. I too read Moo (about my undergraduate school, by the way – she wasn’t much liked there for a while…) and while I enjoyed it it didn’t encourage me to immediately go out and read her other work. This review does. Thanks so much!

  2. I reread Moo every year or so, to give myself an innoculation against academic insanity, so I think it is worth rereading. Your approach to A Thousand Acres is, as always, profound and moving. I was especially struck by a couple of things you mentioned. First, the idea that the 20th century shows the movement from tragedy to trauma seems wonderfully apt for this novel especially. While the old patriarch is going insane, providing the Lear-like tragic element, there are so many other things that hammer away at the whole family, from the abuse you mention to the huge economic, social, and environmental forces that are tearing apart the family farm. All of these traumas cumulatively seem to add up to something approaching tragedy. Your mention of the power of the sruface in midwestern America also strikes me as painfully true. The image of the family farm, and the enduring myth structure that surrounds that farm are both disintegrting as the huge agribuisness combines take over. Smiley, I know, is aware of this undermining of the old story, so this no doubt lies beneath much of her narrative.

  3. Thank you Courtney – how funny to think of her being at your grad school! What a coincidence! And Bikeprof, I’d actually love to read you on this novel. I wanted to say more about the mythic force of the land, but it was long enough already, and I should think ecocriticism has some interesting insights to deliver in this respect.

  4. Yes, I’ll definitely have to read this! Bikeprof has recommended it (and, while I don’t usually listen to his recommendations — sorry! — and he doesn’t usually listen to mine, I might have to break general practice this once), and your review is inspiring!

  5. Wonderful post! So well written, you definitely did this book and subject matter justice. I’ve had this book in my hands so many times, now I’m definitely going to have to read it.

  6. Your review is really interesting – I read A Thousand Acres a few years ago, and loathed it with a passion. I found it more boring than I can say; the plot did not grip me at all. I know this is a woolly statement and I haven’t included any concrete justification for my feelings, but after so long I can’t recall specific examples from the book – I’m just left with my overall impression. And it’s a strong one! After reading your review, I’m almost tempted to go back and re-read it to see if I was wrong. Almost, but not quite.

  7. Just to say, Max, that that’s actually rather interesting. The only online review that I found (in a very brief search) that didn’t like the book (and quite detested it) was written by a man, who complained about the feminist dimension and the implausibility of the scenario. I don’t know that I dare open up the can of worms about feminine versus masculine preferences in reading, but I do wonder to what extent this novel has an emotional pull that reaches women but doesn’t really speak to men. My husband said that with regard to the Alison Lurie novel, ‘it didn’t describe men the way a man would describe them’, and I wonder whether the way the story is presented is off-putting to men (it’s certainly harsh on them). But then again, this was a big book that won the Pulitzer, so who knows?

  8. This book was recommended to me years ago, but I didn’t read it at the time. I read MOO, though, and just didn’t like it, and pretty much decided Smiley probably wasn’t for me. Well, you’ve changed my mind. I at least need to give her another chance, and A THOUSAND ACRES as you’ve described it, sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  9. I read this one years ago for a book group. One of the members really tried to make us see the similarities between A Thousand Acres and King Lear. Unfortunately I hadn’t read King Lear so that was a bit hard for discussion purposes to say the least! Still, it was a book that I thought about quite a bit after reading it.

  10. I admire Smiley’s willingness to take on so many different types of narratives and subjects after having made such a big splash with A Thousand Acres. (I thought Moo was terribly funny and also really enjoyed, almost against my will, the book about horse racing that was obsessive in the extreme, but really gripping. And I liked her stab at cataloging great novels. I could not get myself to read the greenland book, if it was indeed about greenland, but that’s really more my problem than anything about the book.) I do remember being shocked and disturbed by the way A Thousand Acres stood the Lear story on its head, and in a way that struck me as more profound and subtle than other feminist re-tellings of canonical texts. What’s interesting is that the novel seems to work with Lear, rather than against it, by pointing the reader’s attention to the tensions among the sisters in the play. This is just to say that your review made me remember how powerful this novel really is and what a truly fine writer Smiley continues to be.

  11. It was a wholesome experience to read Jane Smiley’s books, Actually it was the second book that I read, and this book was full of detailed, and I was to appreciate it the most…

  12. Pingback: Best Book Club Books 2 « Tales from the Reading Room

  13. Pingback: Today in Literary History: Jane Smiley » Library

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