Day 685: A Thousand Acres

Cover of A Thousand AcresBest Book of the Week!
A Thousand Acres is a powerful novel set mostly in 1979 rural Iowa. It evokes a completely realized world that is complex and secret.

Ginny Smith has lived on the family farm all her life. Her husband Ty farms alongside her father, Larry Cook, and she and Ty live on what used to be their neighbor’s property, which Larry has bought to make his thousand acres of land. Ginny’s sister Rose also lives on the farm, and her husband Pete works with Larry as well, a bit less comfortably. The women’s youngest sister Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny is proud of her family’s accomplishment in creating a fine, well-run farm out of the swampland her great-grandparents bought sight unseen. It soon becomes clear that the farm and the relationship to the land is the most important thing to her family—to all of the families in the area.

At a local barbecue, Larry makes an unexpected announcement. He will create a corporation of the farm and hand it over to his three daughters. Ginny, who is mild-mannered, is taken aback and has doubts, but she does not say anything. Rose seems to be enthusiastic. Caroline simply says “I don’t know,” at which point, Larry petulantly cuts her out. When she tries to approach him later, he slams the door in her face.

Harold Clark, another older farmer, has his prodigal son Jess return after an absence of many years. Almost immediately, he begins to favor Jess over his more loyal and hard-working son Loren.

If this all is beginning to sound familiar, it should, for A Thousand Acres is a modern re-imagining of King Lear. This novel, however, turns the original on its head, for we see it from the point of view of the two “greedy” sisters. In fact, Smiley accomplishes a rather clever trick, because while the neighbors and townspeople see events occur that, from their points of view, seem parallel to those of the play, the readers of the novel are conscious of a whole new layer of information, about how two old men lie and exaggerate when they don’t get their way, and how family secrets fuel Ginny’s timidity and Rose’s rage.

This novel presents complicated, flawed characters in a fully realized setting. It is really excellent and thought-provoking.

Related Posts

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King Lear



7 thoughts on “Day 685: A Thousand Acres

  1. Naomi April 10, 2015 / 12:52 pm

    I was just browsing through all the Jane Smiley books at our library yesterday. I still haven’t read any of her books, even though I own two of them (one of them being this one). Many of them appeal to me. Have you read any of her other books?

    • whatmeread April 10, 2015 / 12:57 pm

      I have read a couple. I really liked this one and the All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Years ago I read The Greenlanders and didn’t like it at all, but these days I noticed different things, so I might have changed my mind if I read it again. I just read Some Luck, which is her newest. I didn’t like it as much (review coming), but maybe that’s because it’s the first in a trilogy. I know that Moo was very popular, but I wasn’t reading Smiley again until recently.

      • Naomi April 10, 2015 / 5:58 pm

        Moo is the other one I have, I think.
        Thanks for your insights!

      • whatmeread April 13, 2015 / 2:19 pm

        I should try that one.

  2. Sarrah J. Woods April 13, 2015 / 8:51 am

    I read this one for an English class that focused on the relationship between original works and retellings. We read King Lear first, then this book; we did the same thing with several other stories. It was really neat. I thought this book was, of course, very well-written and cleverly done and even moving, but I couldn’t help but feel repulsed by the abuse and incest. I just don’t want to read about that, ever.

    • whatmeread April 13, 2015 / 2:20 pm

      That cuts down your reading options.

      • Sarrah J. Woods April 13, 2015 / 2:32 pm

        Haha I suppose so! But I’m not sorry. There are so many good books to read in this world that I don’t want to waste my time reading books I don’t enjoy. Assigned reading for courses is different, however!

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