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A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Set on a thousand acres of land is the Cook family’s farm, sternly ruled by patriarch Larry who teaches his daughters and their husbands his agricultural philosophies until, one day and very unexpectedly, he decides that he has had enough and that he want to divide the farm among his daughters right now and withdraw from the daily business of working the land and keeping the animals. Our narrator, Ginny, is Larry’s oldest daughter and perhaps most worried to keep her father happy and the family harmonious, but her younger sisters each have their own opinions and aspirations. Rose, the second-born, is much more eager to start taking over the business. Caroline, however, has other plans. The youngest sister is the only one who does not live on the land but in a nearby town, working as a lawyer. She thinks her father’s idea a rash decision, has no interest in tilling the land herself and worries, that the farmer might have been pushed to take steps the legal consequences of which he fails to foresee. Larry swiftly interprets her hesitation as a rejection of his way of life and turns her away. A rift opens, that only Ginny fights to heal.

Meanwhile, Larry’s moods grow increasingly violent. Always a stern and irascible man whose daughters were used to physical punishments for small misbehaviours, the patriarch now acts cruelly and unpredictably. Their father’s temper and the fight with their sisters are only two of the challenges Rose and Ginny are facing. The latter had several miscarriages, some of which she had to keep secret from her husband. The former, mother of two girls, is battling cancer and an abusive husband. And finally, to complete the drama, a former neighbour reappears, sowing not only organic seeds but chaos and confusion among the Cook family. An explosive mix of greed, adultery, betrayal and abuse ensue and the family and their farm threaten to fall apart.

Now, this story, and even the characters names will sound familiar to many a reader. Jane Smiley has written an astonishing retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The 17th century play translates exceptionally well onto the vast Iowan landscape of the 20th century. The eponymous thousand acres are their own (not so) small kingdom, subjected to Larry’s tyrannical rule. But where Shakespeare gave us a play form the perspective of an elderly king, somewhat sympathetic and deceived by his cunning daughters, the reader experiences Smiley’s tale through Ginny’s eyes (Goneril). The scale and focus of the story shifts, but the webs of power and treachery remain and wreak havoc on this midwestern family.

Smiley’s characters are richly drawn. Ginny especially emerges as an obedient and modest, often insecure, but fully-formed woman. She and her sister Rose, much more assertive and confident, appear to be polar opposites until we start to peel back the layers of betrayal and conspiracy and realise that each of these women is capable of some cold-blooded acts to ensure her own survival. United at first against their father, these two also start growing suspicious of each other as self-interest gets in the way. The demise of their once so strong relationship is one of the most devastating aspects of this book but not the most shocking one. A Thousand Acres comes with a twist on the source text that is so shocking and unexpected it takes your breath away. Appalling revelations leave not a single character blameless and innocent and by the end of this novel, brilliantly written as it is, you will be glad to let go of its cast. This book is bleak and tragic. Smiley offer neither her characters nor her readers any respite apart from, perhaps, the stunning descriptions of landscapes. Smiley has perfected her plot and characters to offer a ruthlessly honest picture of how man (both general and specific) uses and abuses woman and earth. Though not an easy read for its content, A Thousand Acres is a compulsive and rewarding one that I whole-heartedly recommend to everyone who can stomach it.

First published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1991 *Winner of the Pulitzer Prize*

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