Day 1188: Horse Heaven

Cover for Horse HeavenFor me, Jane Smiley’s work is a little unpredictable. While I consider her A Thousand Acres to be one of the best books I’ve read, I haven’t liked others as much. To my surprise, though, I really enjoyed Horse Heaven.

In this novel, Smiley attempts a difficult feat—she wants to show all the nooks and crannies of horse racing by depicting quite a number of characters. There are owners, trainers, riders, jockeys, bettors, and veterinarians. There are also horses, a handful of which are important to the plot.

The novel isn’t plot heavy. We’re not headed toward a showdown among the major players at the races. Instead, each character has his or her own plot trajectory. The shifty trainer Buddy will do anything to win a race but suddenly finds Jesus. Elegant owner Rosalind is married to loud and gauche Al and has an affair with her trainer, Dick. Irish trainer Deidre thinks of herself as bitter and brusque but is adored by the people who work for her. Zen horse trainer Farley falls madly in love with rider Joy, who feels most comfortable alone. Elizabeth is an animal psychic who gets tips on the races from a retired racehorse.

I complained in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy that there were too many characters to get to know. But here, even though you see them in little vignettes, you do begin to care about them.

And I cared even more about some of the horses. Without actually anthropomorphizing them, Smiley gives them discernible characters. I was particularly captured by Justa Bob, an intelligent, reliable horse who begins a downhill slide mostly because of the carelessness of his owners. Smiley does’t focus just on champions. There is Mr. T., the retired horse; Froney’s Sis, a young filly who is timid and a slow learner; and Epic Storm, a horse who is fast but dangerous and mean.

If you like horses, I think you will love this book, but even if you don’t, Smiley shows us a fascinating, complex world. The novel is written in a breezy style with quite a bit of humor.

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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.

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