Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Thousand Acres

This is not a part of The Great American Read's checklist but I think it should be. Jane Smiley won a Pulitzer Prize for this in 1992 for fiction by an American author preferably dealing with American life. It's not a happy story, nor is this the first time I've read it. I told another parent at a school event that this was one of my favorite books and she said she couldn't believe anyone would read it more than once. Funny enough, the first time I read it I was so rocked by the main "reveal" that chapters later when an act of violence was initiated by one of the main characters against the other, I completely missed it. It's also possible that I was sleep-deprived, but in any case, I was happy to catch it the second time around. 

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

You may or may not already know that this novel is pretty closely based upon Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear, but you definitely don't need to have read it to appreciate this book. Smiley's work tends to focus around farms and families, and the dynamics of both elements are expertly examined here. In more of a re-imagining than an adaptation, Smiley's tale somewhat defies Shakespeare's--it's still the story of a powerful man divvying up his land, it's still a tragedy, but this book takes its time in explaining why its characters do what they do. If the takeaway from King Lear is SPOILED CHILDREN BECOME GREEDY ADULTS, the main message from this book is perhaps, POWERFUL MEN ARE OFTEN ALLOWED TO BE AS TERRIBLE AS THEY LIKE (and yes, in this case it's very).

Told from eldest daughter Ginny's perspective, the story focuses on the decline of her family after patriarch Larry Cook bequeaths his beloved thousand acres of prime Iowa farmland to Ginny and her two sisters, Rose and Caroline. Worth mentioning is the fact that Mother Cook has been gone for some time, having died when Caroline was just a child, and that Ginny and Rose share responsibility in caring for Larry in addition to their own families. Unfortunately, the big acreage giveaway doesn't go exactly as Larry intends--his fierce pride is wounded when Caroline hesitates to accept her share. With the entire town standing by, Larry writes his youngest daughter off entirely; her acres go to Ginny and Rose, relationships become strained as a result, and on and on it goes. Larry becomes sullen and combative, infighting breaks out among the sisters and their husbands, and disturbing memories are resurrected, suggesting that Larry Cook wasn't the husband and father everyone thought he was (or maybe he was but everyone just got used to looking the other way). 

The experience of reading this novel was a little different this time around because I'm so much older now, and my patience as a reader has been lengthened and inspired by my experience as a writer. I love the bits where nothing is happening but descriptions of the land or the explanations of farm procedures that some might
find monotonous. My father wasn't a farmer but my mother's people were, and we lived on a farm for the first ten years of my life. Trust me, the upkeep of paint on farm buildings, the length of the grass, and the condition of the animals and their enclosures were no small details when it came to a farmer's (or farm wife or daughter's) responsibilities. After we moved to town I picked rock, rogued and detassled corn, and rode the bean bar just like every child of hard-ass parents in Olivia, Minnesota did. Even now, years later, it resonates. 

So much of the telling of this story is wrapped in the language of the work being done, that even something as serious as a death in the family (through our eyes as readers as well as Ginny's) can't be separated from the chores that surrounded it and continued after its acknowledgement: 

"It must have been about six. Ty had eaten his breakfast and headed for the hog pens. I had been upstairs making the beds, so I didn't see the sheriff's car go by, but when I went outside with the blankets to hang them on the line for the day, I saw Rose stumbling up the road. That was the oddest thing, how she didn't seem to know where she was going. I was so struck by the strangeness of it that I didn't go out to meet her, but let her come. . . 

She'd been making muffins. The milk and eggs and butter were in the bowl of the mixer. The flour was half measured in the sifter. A green apple and a measuring cup lay on the floor where she'd dropped them or knocked them. I picked them up and finished making the muffins."

It's a story about work and secrets and grudges. Very German, yet very womanist, as our alignment is always with Ginny; Ginny's perceptions, Ginny's reactions, Ginny's redemption. If you enjoy Shakespearean tragedies or heavy family dramas with descriptive language and reflection, you will likely enjoy this novel. At 399 pages it is a bit of an investment, but if you put the time in and finish you'll be in perfect shape to tackle another series of Smiley family struggles in The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age.