Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992, is, on the surface, about an Iowa farm dynasty whose members value, in deference to the family patriarch, Larry Cook, the virtues of order, hierarchy, and keeping up appearances, above all else. The farm’s lineage was of swampland sold by shiftless speculators to Larry’s grandparents, who turned their misfortune into a proverbial pot of gold by irrigating the land and farming the rich topsoil underneath.
Larry, at the time of this story, is sixty-eight years old. The mother of his children is deceased, has been for decades. He worries that his three grown daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline, would have to pay so much taxes upon his death, that they would lose the farm. So he agrees a scheme hatched by Marv Carson, a local banker, to incorporate, and transfer the title of the land, which at the beginning of the story, in 1979, is valued at over three million dollars. His youngest daughter, Caroline, reacts with less than full enthusiasm to the plan, and Larry responds by cutting her out of the title transfer. The oldest daughter, Ginny, is also the narrator of the story, the one whose faults seem less obvious, more forgivable, to the reader.
One the title is transferred, Larry’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and difficult to control. What would be described as a “rigid personality” gives way to an unfocused, irrational side. He becomes paranoid, obsessed with the idea that his older daughters are going to put him in a nursing home. He has always expected them to fill in for their mother, in preparing certain meals on certain days at certain times, without variation. Now his anger becomes even more disproportionate if meals are so much as a few minutes late, and his drinking becomes more pronounced.
The timely arrival of Jess Clark, once a neighbor on a nearby farm, now a returning draft dodger from the Viet Nam war, the prodigal son of Howard Clark, sparks Ginny’s interest in a way that her devoted husband, Ty, does not. Jess is seductive, complicated, and brings with him an awareness of the dangers of the status quo: When Ginny describes her five miscarriages, he immediately curses, hitting upon the source of her condition: nitrates in the well water, from farming runoff, that likely caused Mrs. Clark’s premature death from cancer, as well as Rose’s battle for her life.
At the beginning of the whole clan’s disintegration and decline, however, Rose is very much alive, her cancer in temporary remission. The first clue as to her scathing anger, and the secret she is hiding, comes when Rose topples a Monopoly board while her husband Pete is winning, saying she’s “sick of playing.”
This is one of those stories where the narrator tells you at the beginning, “This is how it all went wrong” as a precedent to everything that follows. But Jane Smiley’s skill is that at one moment, with Rose’s revelation, you feel how everything falls apart for Ginny, and you realize that the psychologically and environmentally toxic family environment you’ve been immersed in as a spectator, a reader, is darker and more twisted than you first imagined. Along with Ginny you see all of the characters in a new light, their motivations a panoply of vice: selfishness, greed, cruelty, deception, and betrayal. Even Ginny-who you try to forgive for her attraction to Jess because you know she will pay for it-slowly becomes unrecognizably corrupted by her hatred for her own sister, acting with such vengeance that she is no longer a sympathetic character.
What is Rose’s secret? Will Ginny succumb to her illicit passion, and if so, will her marriage to Ty survive? How do Larry and Harold become allies in an intergenerational war, and at what cost? I would tell you, but I don’t want to spoil the secret.
Footnote: The novel “A Thousand Acres” is often compared to Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and is built as a deconstruction and inversion of the Classical plot. “A Thousand Acres” was also a movie of the same title in 1997, starring Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jason Robards, and Colin Firth.
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