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A Thousand Acres

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Aging Larry Cook announces his intention to turn over his 1,000-acre farm—one of the largest in Zebulon County, Iowa—to his three daughters, Caroline, Ginny, and Rose. A man of harsh sensibilities, he carves Caroline out of the deal because she has the nerve to be less than enthusiastic about her father's generosity. While Larry Cook deteriorates into a pathetic drunk, his daughters are left to cope with the often grim realities of life on a family farm—from battering husbands to cutthroat lenders. In this winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Smiley captures the essence of such a life with stark, painful detail.

371 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1991

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About the author

Jane Smiley

134 books2,062 followers
Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Smiley grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, and graduated from John Burroughs School. She obtained a A.B. at Vassar College, then earned a M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. While working towards her doctorate, she also spent a year studying in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar. From 1981 to 1996, she taught at Iowa State University. Smiley published her first novel, Barn Blind, in 1980, and won a 1985 O. Henry Award for her short story "Lily", which was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Her best-selling A Thousand Acres, a story based on William Shakespeare's King Lear, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. It was adapted into a film of the same title in 1997. In 1995 she wrote her sole television script produced, for an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street. Her novella The Age of Grief was made into the 2002 film The Secret Lives of Dentists.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), is a non-fiction meditation on the history and the nature of the novel, somewhat in the tradition of E. M. Forster's seminal Aspects of the Novel, that roams from eleventh century Japan's Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji to twenty-first century Americans chick lit.

In 2001, Smiley was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,377 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,296 reviews120k followers
May 4, 2023
“…Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction. We have to stand up to that, and say, at least to ourselves, that what he’s done before is still with us, still right here in this room until there’s true remorse. Nothing will be right until there’s that.”
“He looks so, sort of, weakened.”
“Weakened is not enough. Destroyed isn’t enough. He’s got to repent and feel humiliation and regret. I won’t be satisfied until he knows what he is.”
“Do we know what we are?”
“We know we aren’t him. We know that to that degree we don’t yet deserve the lowest circle of hell.”
Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Thousand Acres takes most of its inspiration from King Lear, but works that soil with bountiful quantities of modern nutrients.

In the original, the elderly Lear, wanting to retire from his royal duties, seeks to distribute his kingdom among his children, with the largest share going to the daughter who loves him most. (makes you want to smack the guy) However, there is no fool like an old fool and Lear, offended by the simple, if unadorned, honesty of his youngest, Cordelia, and manipulated by the flattery of his elder two, Goneril and Regan, disinherits Cordelia. The play portrays the elder sisters in a very dark light. But how might that tale look through their eyes? Are they really that awful? Maybe Lear had it coming. Maybe Willy the Shake is a bit too locked in to a misogynistic, patriarchal world view to give the ladies a fair…um…shake. Enter Jane Smiley, stage left, to introduce King Lear in the Great Plains.

Jane Smiley - image from The Spectator

She parks the kingdom in Iowa. Unlike Kinsella’s vision of the place, this version ain’t heaven. Larry Cook is both old and a fool. In a fit of one-upsmanship in the face of his highly manipulative and competitive bff, Harold, Larry decides to step back from his work and hand the farm over to his children. This seems ok, I guess, to the oldest, Ginny (Goneril) and her younger sister Rose (Regan), but the youngest, Caroline (Cordelia), a lawyer, expresses her reservations about how it is being done. This is enough to set off the old guy and he writes her out of the deal, even at one point literally slamming the door in her face. (Don’t let it hit you on the nose on your way out). Caroline is not exactly interested in farming, so the insult is more about personal rejection than lost acreage.

Smiley does not offer an exact correspondence of her characters to Shakespeare’s. There will be no Cordelia dying in her father’s arms here, and this Lear appears to gain no wisdom or compassion from his experiences. Ginny is our narrator through the story. She loves her Daddy, and tries to make allowances for his constant verbal abuse and irascibility. In fact she is incapable of standing up to him. Rose despises Larry, and for good cause, as it turns out, but the two sisters had protected Caroline from Larry’s worst inclinations, so her affection for her father is untainted by Ginny and Rose’s darker experience of him. There is major departure here from the source material. Rose and Ginny hardly suck up to pops to gain advantage like their Elizabethan counterparts had. Their husbands do a good job of that though. Ginny genuinely, if misguidedly, loves her father. And even if Rose had been plotting against Larry, well, he really deserved it. But in fact, the sisters are more bewildered recipients of Larry’s surprise largesse than anything else.
I set about correcting my friend William Shakespeare—something no sane adult would attempt. I gave the royal family a background and a milieu. I gave the daughters a rationale for their apparently cruel behavior… - Austin Allen quoting Smiley in an article in BigThink
If Lear were guilty of Larry’s sins, it would certainly alter our view of his daughters’ behavior. And that is one of the points. The Elizabethan sisters are presumed to be incompetent to run anything, because they are female. Smiley points out some of the potential horrors of running a profitable farm, and it is clear that farmers of either gender would be challenged to make a go of it. However, Ginny has always been prevented from doing much with the farm, kept in domestic service her entire life. Rose is a tough cookie, who has endured an abusive husband, but is very much a competent, no-nonsense sort, to a fault. She proudly proclaims that when she wants something, she takes it. Both Rose and Ginny have been poisoned by their environment, both natural and familial. The poisons used on the farm, it is implied, are the reason why Ginny was never able to bring a pregnancy to term, and why Rose has breast cancer. (she has had a mastectomy) How awful is it when one’s identity involves land and the very land that reflects the self has been poisoned?

There is something to being rooted to a place. There is comfort in the solidity, reliability, history, pride and maybe even beauty of a place. Generations past may have established a home, a residence, property in a particular location and invested years and lives both molding the land and taking sustenance from it. Their efforts planted the seeds which became the roots from which we spring. But what if the land, the roots themselves are no good? What if the means used to sustain the human/place relationship has fouled both? What if the place that is expected to sustain life drains it instead? Poisoned land = poisoned lives.

Does the land define a person? The book opens with a quote:
The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other.
The landscape is mostly flat, with a central mound from which all can be seen, the division of local land among rival families, yet for all the visibility it is what lies unseen that devours the characters. The difference between appearance and reality, between what is visible and what lies hidden permeates the novel. Ginny talks with her husband about dealing with Larry:
“You’re right. I don’t understand him. But a lot of the taking issue that you see is just us trying to figure out how to understand him better. I feel like there’s treacherous undercurrents all the time. I think I’m standing on solid ground, but then I discover there’s something moving underneath it, shifting from place to place. There’s always some mystery. He doesn’t say what he means.”
Larry presents to the world as a successful farmer and family man, when in fact, he has been destroying his own land and abusing and, effectively, killing his family at the same time. That he has taken unfair, predatory advantage of his neighbors only adds spice. Ginny recalls a sane childhood with her father, but the reality lies in another field. There is enough mendacity in the air to warrant an EPA alert, and I could not help thinking of another fictional patriarch every time the daughters call their father Daddy.

This is a place in which family is held as the pinnacle of human value, but when the Ericson family moved away, when Ginny was a kid, she desperately wanted to leave with them. It is only when Ginny is able to separate herself from the land that she can be her own person.

Motherhood and apple pie do not go together much in this view of the heartland. Rose and Ginny’s mother dies young. Rose is afflicted with a dread disease at a very young age and her ability to complete the raising of her children is not certain. Ginny, who takes on some parental responsibility for her nieces, is not as close to them as a real mother might be. In fact, the greatest maternal love Ginny experienced was from Mrs. Ericson. And poison in the well water, it is suggested, prevents her from completing a pregnancy. Not many cards being sent on Mother’s Day in this place.

Like Lear, Larry goes a little funny in the head, and doubling down on foolishness, insists on wandering about on his own during a large thunderstorm. (Dick Cheney, anyone, doubling down on torture after the report on its ineffectiveness came out?) He will not listen to reason. Further misery stems from this unfortunate outing. In fact there is an awful lot of misery in this tale, of the short-term, long-term and terminal sorts. Unlike Lear, who at least picked up a bit of compassion and humility from his excesses, Larry learns nothing from his errors.

I did get the impression that in presenting what is certainly a feminist look at Lear, the guys come off pretty badly, tarred with a dark brush the way Willie the Shake treated the elder sisters in the original. Harold is totally poisonous, as is Larry. Ginny’s husband seems pretty reasonable a lot of the time, but we are given a much darker view of him later in the tale. In one scene, eager to gain both land and Larry’s blessings, Ty talks to Ginny about dealing with Larry:
…you women could handle it better. You could handle him better. You don’t always have to take issue. You ought to let a lot of things slide.
which sounds to me a lot like “just lie back and enjoy it.” Ginny thinks of Ty as dumb and passive, whatever his better qualities might be. Rose’s husband is a drunk and an abuser. Even the returning prodigal, the handsome and charming Jess, the one who wants to farm organically and restore some purity to the land, engages in a bit of shtup-and-tell, and ultimately proves less than reliable.

So what are we to make of all this? Lear offers a structure but the story seems to be about both feminism and America. The women here, even the tougher and more perceptive ones, have to put up with an unspeakable amount of crap, and are castigated for griping about it. The parallel is to the treatment of the land, which endures a similar abuse, as farming becomes more of a heavily mechanized food production system than something that allows one to feel a connection to the earth.

What about readability, characters, does it make sense, can you engage, will you care? A Thousand Acres is a very readable book. This darkly dramatic story flows along at a rapid clip and it will definitely hold your interest. Ginny is our guide through this particular part of Iowa, and will engage your sympathy, although you will want to roll your eyes at some of her behavior. It is understandable how she came to be the way she is, for the most part, and we want her to come out of it all ok. There is a revelation about Ginny’s history that makes one wonder how she could have blocked a particular memory. I suppose it is possible, but it was a stretch to accept. Battles are engaged, dirt is done, plots are hatched, backs are stabbed, poison is prepared, truths are told, cars are crashed, lightning bolts flash. There is plenty of drama to be experienced here, as plowshares are beaten into swords. If there are giants in this maybe-no-longer-good earth, they are pissed and taking revenge. Watch out! A Thousand Acres is powerful stuff. No fertilizer needed.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s web site, FB page and Huff-Po blog

An Interview with Mary Camille Beckman, of Fiction Writers Review, in which Smiley talks about writing

An interview with Matthew Rothschild of The Progressive on politics in her writing

Roger Ebert has some unkind things to say about the film that was made of A Thousand Acres

A 2003 profile of Smiley from The Guardian
Profile Image for Glen Engel-Cox.
Author 4 books51 followers
February 10, 2017
When this book was chosen by our book club for this month's theme of "tragedy," I approached reading it with some trepidation. There are a number of things that I don't care for in literature, and one of them is the family drama which centers on the drama as drama for its own sake, rather than to say something more about the world. Part of my bias against this kind of writing comes from having cut my eyeteeth on science fiction, the literature of ideas which, at its best, is about today as much as it is about a future. I also spent three years in a creative writing program where, god bless them, my fellow students seemed to spend a lot of time writing autobiographical stories that didn't have much to say beyond it sucks to grow up in fill-in-the-blank. The book had won a Pulitzer, and if there's anything I learned in my MFA classes on literature, an award was often a signal that a book was not for the reader but written for the critics. A Thousand Acres screamed to me from its cover that it was that kind of book, that focused on the dissolution of the family as seen through a retelling of the King Lear story. I shuddered.

But, really, I shouldn't have. Having previously read two books by Jane Smiley (the quite amusing MOO and the intelligent and thoughtful Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel), I should have given her the benefit of the doubt. Within the first fifty pages, I was surprised that Smiley had drawn me into her story, and while it was still fairly mundane (the family dog wasn't going to start talking on page 100, to my dismay), I found the voice of the narrator intriguing and wondered just how much of King Lear Smiley was going to be able to transpose to 1970s Iowa. Turns out, quite a bit, in a wondrously deft way that I would have termed a 'tour de force' if I used that phrase anymore.

The narrator is the eldest of the three daughters, and instead of a king dividing up his kingdom, the family farm is to be divided among the daughters somewhat early by forming a corporation in which he gives control of the farm to the children, in a sudden move that delights the older daughters and their husbands and alarms the youngest, who no longer lives on the farm nor has much to do with it. Her concern about the alacrity of his decision infuriates the father, so much that he cuts her out of the paperwork process and thus the land itself. Pretty much every plot point in the Shakespearean play is touched upon in some manner, but never so roughly that the connections feel strained. If anything, Smiley's version is much, much more subtle in its understanding of the characters' motivations, giving both a sympathetic portrait of the older two sisters that is entirely missing in the play, as well as making the Lear figure less of a madman and more of a stubborn one, such that when his stubbornness leads him into the rain, his madness becomes if not sensible, at least reasonable. You don't necessarily take any one character's side in this fight, but none seems such a villain.

What Smiley does that, I think, one-ups Shakespeare even more than making the female characters sympathetic is that she truly makes the tragedy about the land as about the people. In the background, and infusing everything the characters do to a point, is the thousand acres of the title. Perhaps it is because it is hard for us to imagine a kingdom as something one can own and pass to your children, for it's very easy to grasp the concept of these thousand acres, how much they mean to the family, and how tragic it is that this family cannot hold on to that land. In the past, I've been less than sympathetic to the concept of the family farm, but even my cold heart can't read what Smiley has described here and see it as anything but a tragedy.

What this novel has over the modern literature that I feared it would be is not only a plot (people die here, not to mention being maimed and insulted and cruelly treated) but a larger meaning, and that big picture of this being more than just a personal tragedy, is what makes this worthwhile reading. Out of the group who read this for book club, I turned out to rate this book the highest, and that is to say, I recommend it strongly.

[edited to fix that darn extra apostrophe!]
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,053 followers
April 13, 2016
Smiley uses King Lear as her framework for this novel. We have the ailing patriarch, a kingdom in decline and his three contesting daughters. And as you’re reading you’re often wondering to what extent Smiley is going to mirror the Shakespeare plot. The plot of King Lear would be melodramatic vaudeville in the hands of a heavy handed author so Smiley is setting herself a huge challenge here.

The novel is narrated by Ginny, the eldest of the daughters. In other words Goneril, the most treacherous, spiteful and amoral of Lear’s daughters. Ginny though only shares these flaws in the most subtle of ways and it takes a while before they begin to emerge. On the surface she is self-effacing, obedient, submissive to both her father and husband. She is childless, the victim of several miscarriages and thus jealous of her sister Rose who has two girls. She is also jealous of her younger sister Caroline (Cordelia) who has escaped the farm and rural life to become a lawyer in the city. Two events throw the quiet stable long-preserved continuity of life on the farms into disarray. The father hands over the farms to his three daughters – except Caroline expresses doubts as to the wisdom of this decision and he rages and cuts her off; and the return of a neighbouring farmer’s vagabond handsome son and his championing of organic farming. (I had been watching Jess all evening. I had a third eye for Jess alone, a telescopic lens that detected every expression that crossed his face.) These events are portrayed like a calamity of sudden violent weather conditions, bringing to the surface poisons in the soil capable of destroying the most scrupulously observed methods of tilling the land. The connection between the soil and human emotion is a constant factor in the unfolding of this novel.

First thing that strikes is the poise and control of the narrative voice. There’s an awful lot of drama in this novel and with a less measured voice it might easily degenerate into soap opera-ish melodrama. But the poise and the control of the narrative voice is superb throughout. As a result what might occasionally be hard to swallow is easily digested. Then there’s Smiley’s soothsaying insight into human emotion and motive. Her greatest gift as a writer is her ability to expose the secrets of the heart, the pivotal subtleties of feeling on which lives spin. The excavating nuances of her observations were relentlessly thrilling. (“I always feel a little guilty when I break bad news to someone, because that energy, of knowing something others don’t, sort of puffs you up.”) Smiley’s also a master at creating and sustaining dramatic tension. She even writes sex well – an almost unheard of talent in my experience – “I thought about having sex with Jess Clark and I could feel my flesh turn electric at these thoughts, could feel sensation gather at my nipples, could feel my vagina relax and open, could feel my lips and fingertips grow sensitive enough to know their own shapes.”

So why not five stars? The drama is lavished on very thickly. You get caught up in one drama – adultery - but then before any kind of resolution arrives a bigger drama is introduced – child abuse - and then an even bigger one – a plotted murder. Now and again I have to admit I wondered if it might not have been a more comprehensively thrilling and satisfying novel had Smiley kept the King Lear blueprint more of a subliminal refrain. The literally murderous nature of some emotions seemed a bit forced to me. Also I thought she overloaded the father with culpability. He was a fabulously compelling male tyrant already without tarring and feathering him with a new and truly horrendous crime. (“Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction.”) But these are small misgivings in what was a fabulously exciting reading experience.

“Jess came toward Rose and me with a smile that I felt myself hook onto, the way you would hook a rope ladder over a windowsill and lower yourself out of a burning house.”

“We drove in a kind of wholesome silence, carrying our whole long marriage, all the hope and kindness that it represented, with us. What it felt like was sitting in Sunday school singing "Jesus loves me," sitting in the little chairs, surrounded by sunlight and bright drawings, and having those first inklings of doubt, except that doubt presents itself simply as added knowledge, something new, for the moment, to set beside what is already known.”
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,608 followers
September 28, 2017
For three generations, the Cook family have worked hard to create a thriving agriculture operation, draining swamplands, turning the weeds and grass into rich fertile soil. As time went on, their holdings eventually reached what felt like a magic number to the family – a thousand acres.

Larry Cook decides he wants to ensure his legacy continues to flourish and presents a plan to split it between his three daughters and their husbands. Ginny, the eldest and Rose, two years younger agree to comply with their father’s wishes but the youngest daughter Caroline is not interested. She is a lawyer and is about to marry another lawyer and has no interest in farming. That a child of his thwarts him is intolerable to this domineering patriarch and he cuts Caroline off completely.

As this well-plotted story proceeds and we learn more about this family, it becomes clear that things have not been right for many years. Certainly not since Larry’s wife and the girls’ mother died when Ginny was fourteen years old. It is now Ginny’s responsibility to cook, clean, and care for her much younger sister along with help from twelve year old Rose. As the story progresses, we discover that even before their mother’s death, Ginny and Rose did not have a carefree childhood. Everything they experienced, as sisters and as a family, shaped their own later lives as surely as a braided loaf of bread.

The characters in this book are each unique unto themselves. Each has their own way of getting their way, getting along, and giving way when necessary. The husbands and the neighbours are all well drawn and coloured in – each one is memorable for their own personal impact on the story.

There is sadness, tragedy and incredible challenges faced by this family. In the end, how they cope with both the good times and the bad times further defines their characters and their relationships with each other.

This book is written with great expertise in illustrating the many dimensions each person carries within. The plot of this book is strongly driven by these characterizations and we come to understand more fully how people’s lives and their interactions with each other sow the seeds of who we become; yet it is how we nurture those seeds that determines how we grow.
Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,624 followers
November 18, 2016
King Lear + 1970's Iowa farm dynasty = riveting storytelling

Having never read Jane Smiley before, I'm glad I started with this dazzling 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Set in 1970's Iowa farm country, we follow the Cook family: Larry, the cruel, no-nonsense patriarch, and his daughters Ginny (the narrator), Rose and Caroline. At the onset of the story, Larry decides to retire and pass down the farm to his daughters and their husbands. Caroline, the youngest, the only daughter who managed to get off the farm and works as a lawyer, is skeptical about this plan. Larry, who doesn't tolerate opposition, is incensed. A rift in the family is born, cracking it open and spilling out all kinds of secrets, eventually bringing forth the painful truth at the core.

I was amazed while reading this; first, because I was drawn in almost immediately, I was so quickly invested in the lives of her characters. I was also amazed at how Smiley incorporated the ambitious Shakespearean inspired plot, taking the story to dark and deep places.

Despite all this depth and darkness, there is an accessibility that carried me through with ease. Marriages with tensions, lost pregnancies, and an unwelcome, sexy interloper ramping up the drama. Betrayal and death and storms and unforgivable acts.

Thanks to its setting, there is a lot of detail about the minutia of American farm life (which sounds like a heck of a lot of hard work). However, this tale is about so much more than tending corn fields and hog raising. It's about family, secrets, identity, and perspective shaping each person's truth. It tells about the unfair rules pertaining to the sexes, and the oppression and abuse of women. It's also about destiny - Ginny in particular lives in a passivity even when she commits her most brutal action, which forces her to wait as she has her whole life.

The book also deals with legacy, an inheritance which encompasses more than just money and objects. This inheritance encompasses lessons and truth passed down from those who have come before. This truth brings with it the death of innocence, the American dream shattered. The coveted, multi-generational farm symbolises the fallacy of dreams at its great, tragic heart.

Profile Image for Brian.
689 reviews332 followers
September 17, 2020
“People keep secrets when other people don’t want to hear the truth.”

“A Thousand Acres” is one of those novels that kind of creeps up on you. You do not realize it is pulling you in, but it does so, bit by bit. Every time I picked up the book, I read for long periods. The novel is a modern version (slight retelling) of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” The text begins in 1979 on an Iowa farm, and is told from the perspective of the eldest of three daughters, Ginny Cook. Ginny is the surrogate for Shakespeare’s Goneril. As mentioned, the text is based on “King Lear’, but it is different enough from that story that as you read when you sometimes see the parallels it is jarring (in a good way). The author, Jane Smiley, was judicious and clever in her use of these moments.
The author’s depiction of farm life and her attention to the mundane details of that life make the world of this text all that more real. It is well done and gives the novel a full feeling.
Some strong moments in the book include a scene in chapter 29 where a character remembers suppressed childhood trauma. It is concise and harrowing in its portrayal of that awakening. Equally strong is chapter 33, which is one of the most realistic depictions of a fight between a long time couple that I have ever read. What is unsaid is powerful, and I cringed in recognition while reading it.
I have read reviews where some have bemoaned the fact that “A Thousand Acres” is a dark text, and the ending is depressing. Well…the ending of Shakespeare’s tragedies are dark and we accept that with no qualms. Tragedy is not outdated. My emotional side detests the novel’s bleakness. My intellectual side knows that it rings true.
Profile Image for Jonathan Ashleigh.
Author 1 book119 followers
November 18, 2016
In the beginning I felt there were a lot of characters to keep track of, but while some names are mentioned later on that I did not recall that was not actually a problem for me. I only realized while reading other reviews that this was a spin off of King Lear and that helps explain why some of the characters, while otherwise humble, cheated on their spouses and even tried to kill the people closest to them. I thought that the idea of “the death of the American farm” was the most powerful part of this book but the use of the game of Monopoly to describe this fell short.

It seemed at times that Smiley was trying to convince the reader that organic farming is the best way. There were long descriptions of what people ate and these were supposed to be character traits, including a vegetarian from Seattle who doesn’t drink beer but likes Coke.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly through the first third but, after that, it became over dramatized and lost me. All of the characters got dramatically angry or stepped out of their character at some point and there wasn’t one I could cling to.
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,164 reviews511 followers
August 22, 2017
Rose: "Forgiveness is a reflex for when you can't stand what you know. I resisted that reflex. That's my sole, solitary, lonely accomplishment."
This is a story about a family and their one thousand acre farm in Zebulon County, Iowa. It is a detailed account of life on an American farm. Three sisters had to live through the memories of their childhood, the death of their mother, and the relationship they all had with their father.

Betrayal, trust, loyalty, and fate were slowly building up a tower of deceit which was waiting for the first serious storm to take it down.

Virginia (Ginny) Cook Smith and Rose Cook Lewis are handed over their father's land when he formed a corporation and relinquish the thousand acres to them. Larry Cook forced his daughters to sign. Ginny's husband, Tyler Smith, and Rose's husband, Peter Lewis, took over the overall management. A spanner is thrown into the works when Jess Clark arrived back in the neighborhood ...

Caroline Cook, the youngest daughter, is kept out of the initial agreement. Then in a turn of events, she tried to find a way to turn the agreement around, accusing her sisters of foul play, especially when their dad loses his mind and start acting strange: wandering off; buying unnecessary stuff, and sitting for hours looking out his window without batting an eye. The rift in the relationship opened up a hornets nest of bitter memories and secrets.

Caroline did not share the special bond between Ginny and Rose.
Ginny: "When I dropped Rose at her house, she kissed me on the cheek. The fact was that we had known each other all our lives but we had never gotten tired of each other. Our bond had a peculiar fertility that I was wise enough to appreciate, and also, perhaps, wise enough to appreciate in silence. Rose wouldn't have stood for any sentimentality."
Their dad often said that Caroline was a better child than the two older sisters. Caroline was neither stubborn and sullen, like Ginny, nor rebellious and back talking, like Rose. Caroline was a loving child, he said.
Ginny: " She kissed her dolls, and kissed him, too, when he wanted a kiss. If he said, "Cary, give me a kiss," that way he always did, without warning, half an order, half a plea, she would pop into his lap and put her arms around his neck and smack him on the lips. Seeing her do it always made me feel odd, as if a heavy stone were floating and turning within me, that stone of stubbornness and reluctance that kept me any more from being asked."
Larry Cook prevented his oldest daughters from having outside contact. Home was good enough. Home was best. No sleep-overs with school friends, in fact, no friends at all, no dances, no school activities. The two girls decided to do the right thing for their youngest sister. They made sure she socialized, attended school activities, made friends, and escape the farm. They ensured her a more brighter, more sharper, more promising life. She got it. But their selfless act of love and kindness backfired on them when Caroline finished her studies and became a wealthy lawyer, cut off from the tough life on the farm. Her attitude and deliberate miscommunication with her sisters, destroyed any chance of a relationship between the three sisters.

The new owners of the farm battled to keep it afloat, increasing loans and sliding into a dangerous situation which could cost them the land. Like with all farm land, the size became too small for the ever increasing number of people who had to live off it.

This is an intense drama, in which the reader is pulled into the story in the first fifty pages and made part of the family in such a way that there's no point of return. At one stage I did want to close the book, wondering what the point of the story was. So much detail - extremely detailed itinaries of feelings, content of the homes, farming equipment, the bottled food, and what not, felt like a way to dump unnecessary words into the text and fill up too many pages with irrelevant information. It could have been for effect only, since it did not really fed the drama. However, the same detail also established the essence of the American farm life: exactly how it was lived; what was needed; how it was managed; how communities interact with each other - the meanness, tricks, betrayals, the good will, sentiment, hard work, and so forth. It is a complex story which can be dissected on many levels. This is an excellent book club read.

Ginny is the protagonist narrating the saga in the first person. A complex personality in herself. All the characters are well developed throughout the narrative. The line between likable and non-likable are clearly drawn, and none of the characters were left underdeveloped. There was no misunderstanding about the intent, or role, of each character in the story.

I did not feel good after closing the book. I was emotionally drained. The relationships and different background elements in the book had to be reconsidered several times before I could finalize this review. There are just too many sides to this story! An excellent read indeed. I am sure that more hidden elements will be discovered the more the book is read!

Yes, complex, heartbreaking,soul-wrenching, inspiring, intense, informative and thought-provoking - this is how I summarize this experience. The theme of this Pulitzer Prize winning book is dark. However, I will read this author again. I simply identified one hundred percent with the farming background. Come to think of it, farming can be regarded as a character in the book perhaps.

Recommended !!
Profile Image for Wanda.
284 reviews11 followers
June 8, 2010
Ok, I got to page 267 of this book and I figured that life was too short to go ahead with this torture. What was the Pulitzer committee thinking when they awarded the prize to this DREADFUL book? I found it so excrutiatingly dull as to be an exercise in nothing more than endurance. Smiley's story of the decline of an Iowa farm family is ostensibly based on King Lear. In reality it has no remote resemblance to King Lear, who was a sympathetically tragic character – perhaps one of his greatest. And the daughters – rather than being based on the odious Goneril and Regan, are truly distorted beyond recognition. Shakespere’s story and characters are deeply resonant and well developed. The issues in King Lear involve complex human relationships and interactions. Not so with these farm folks. Smiley’s characters were (gasp!) abused by this Iowa patriarch– you can see this coming a mile away. Not that abuse is not a real problem, but it has been a bit overdone, and overdone, and overdone. There is nothing fresh or new about this rendering of an overdone topic. And the final indignity to one’s intellect -- there is a stupid scene in which one of them all of a sudden remembers this repressed memory – shades of the recovered memory movement. Blah, baloney, balderdash.
In page after boring page, nothing whatever of any significance happens. To make things worse, Smiley’s tedious prose resembles something from an 8th grade lesson in creative writing. She describes everything – everything, every covered dish at the social, every vegetable in the garden. This would be OK, but these details play no discernible role in the story, except to add more pages to the book. Once again, I have found an author who is in serious need of a good editor.
If your book club votes on this one, skip that meeting. You will be happy you did not waste your time.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,196 reviews9,480 followers
March 28, 2016

It’s kind of slightly fun to see how Jane Smiley gets all the lurid plot of King Lear into her tale of the decline and fall of an Iowa farming family. For instance

Out, vile jelly!
Where is thy lustre now?

the famous scene where the Earl of Gloucester is blinded onstage (ewww, really?) gets transformed into an accident with a farm machine which squirts ammonia into a farmer’s eyes; and a war between the branches of the family becomes a court case. And the reason the father gives the farm to the daughters in the first place is to avoid taxes. That kind of thing. It’s neat. I do like retooled versions of Willie the Shake, and King Lear has popped up as the movies House of Strangers, Broken Lance, Ran, My Kingdom and even allegedly Godfather Part III. Nothing wrong with that. Clueless is Emma and She’s the Man is Twelfth Night. I loves them.

But actually I really hate King Lear itself, so that didn’t help. I mean, all that neck-bulging ranting and raving. It’s like – my ears, my ears. And that’s just the daughters. All that howling on the blasted heath and the Fool and the poor weather. So you know oh he’s given his kingdom away and now the evil daughters have chucked him out, well, serves the old senile idiot right. Who can care. No, give me Macbeth with its genius fast-moving plot and Hamlet with its genius characters and brilliantly various scenes throughout. You can stuff your turgid King Lear.
Jane Smiley dials down the ranting and raving – we’re getting this story from the point of view of Goneril, an “evil daughter”. It turns out (Surprise!! Not!!) that this midwestern King Lear was an abusive (in every way) father and a violent tyrant. Just another domestic Radovan Karadzic, just another good ole Josef Fritzl.

What Jane Smiley dials up is endless itemising of the stuff farm people have in their lives and particularly how they dress and what they cook. Detail? Yes, we have detail :

Here was Caroline, sitting on the couch, her dirndl skirt fanned out around her, her hands folded in her lap, her lace-trimmed ankle socks and black Mary Janes stuck out in front of her...

He was wearing cowboy boots, the ones he always wore off the farm. He had two or three pairs, and the high heels made his legs look long. He was in better shape than Ty, although not without a little thickness in the middle.

(He had two or three pairs? Gee, what about that. They made his legs look long? No way!)

And the book is also full to the brim of farm-coloured white noise, like this:

Starting about the fifteenth of September, and every day after that, Ty took the portable moisture tester out into the fields, hoping against hope that with good weather he could start harvesting early. When he came back, he and Jess drove the two combines, the big three-year-old six-row picker and the old two-row picker and Daddy had bought used five years earlier, already with four thousand hours on it. There was also the old cornpicker, still sitting in Daddy’s barn, that took the whole ears instead of shelled grain like the combines. Using the cornpicker would mean more storage, since there were two slatted corncribs at the east edge of Mel’s corner…and blah blah blah for a long paragraph more.

Could be, then, that this was never going to be a hit with me. And it wasn’t. It was no fun. Not one half-smile to be had in the whole 372 pages. It was dour, it was worthy, it was plodding, it was thoroughly unenlightening, it was like am I ever going to finish this?, it was gritted teeth and effort and in the end it was barely credible.

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the Pulitzer Prize committee;
They bore us for their sport.
Profile Image for Libby.
583 reviews157 followers
July 16, 2019
A nuanced and multilayered family drama set in 1970s Zebulon County, Iowa. Jane Smiley’s distinct voice births the characters of Larry Clark, and his three daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline. Although it shares some characteristics with Shakespeare’s King Lear, it has its own shape and form and carries its own profundity. Smiley is specific about the history of Larry Cook’s thousand acres, its genesis through ‘sweat equity,’ the draining of its marshy waters to reveal the fertile and generative soil and the secure way of life it provides for the Cook family. To Ginny Cook, the eldest daughter, whose narrative voice guides our perceptions, her parents discussing the neighbors' farms and finances was the epitome of comfort and ‘all’s right with the world,’ as she learns that their farm is the cream of the crop.

When Ginny is fourteen, her comfort and security are challenged by the death of her mother. Their Daddy decides that Ginny and twelve-year-old Rose can mother the youngest daughter, six-year-old Caroline. Larry’s presence and his expectations of his daughters play a huge role in this novel. For Ginny, he has been a god-like figure, and he symbolizes all that is the farm.

“. . . his very fearsomeness was reassuring when I thought about things like robbers or monsters, and we lived on what was clearly the best, most capably cultivated farm. The biggest farm owned by the biggest farmer. That fit, or maybe formed, my own sense of the right order of things.”

The story takes up its central action when Ginny and Rose are in their mid-thirties. Caroline is twenty-eight, a successful lawyer, the only one who’s left the farm. Have you ever been part of a group that you think is cohesive and works well together and another person comes along and all of a sudden, the group dynamics are turned on its head? That’s what happens in this story when Jess Clark returns home after a thirteen-year absence. Ginny and husband, Ty, and Rose and her husband, Pete, include Jess in their evenings. They start playing monopoly together. Jess changes the dynamics of all these relationships. Jess is a vegetarian, he runs, studies Buddhism, and spouts the law of attraction. Smiley builds a sexual tension gradually, and it’s very powerful in its slowness to build.

When Larry says he’s ready to retire and turn the farm over to his three daughters and their husbands, Caroline says, “I don’t know.” As quick as that, Larry disinherits her and splits the land two ways. It’s a situation rife with contention and Smiley breathes into its complexity. All the feelings of selfishness, jealousy, and greed that lie beneath the surface, rise. We all have our little kingdoms, don’t we?

One of ‘A Thousand Acres’ most important themes is environmental degradation. Ginny has had several miscarriages. Jess tells her it’s because of chemical runoff into the wells. Ty wants to set up a hog operation now that he and Ginny can work for themselves instead of for Larry. A large scale industrial hog farm creates huge amounts of liquid waste, noxious odors, and toxic emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. The land will become as barren as Ginny

What an important story! I can see why ‘A Thousand Acres’ novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992. A movie by the same name received less than stellar reviews. One criticism was poor characterization. Rest assured that Smiley plumbs the depths of her characters in this novel. A movie film is just not the right medium for a complicated work of this nature. Skip this one if sexual abuse is a trigger for you, otherwise highly recommended, especially for book club discussions.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,545 followers
February 1, 2020
A Thousand Acres was a beautifully written dark novel about life in Zebulon County, Iowa on a large farm that won the 1992 Pulitzer Price (and deservedly so). It was competing with two books that I have read and enjoyed, Mao II and Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, but it was superior to both of these. I have not read Jernigan however.

We are introduced via first person interior dialog to what looks like a normal and prosperous farming family, with some parallels to King Lear, Larry "Daddy" Cook, the overbearing widower and his three daughters, Virginia "Ginny" (our narrator), Rose and Caroline. Ginny has been unfortunate with miscarriages and is thus childless, but living in harmony with her husband Ty who works hard on the farm and has a good relationship to Larry. Rose has suffered from breast cancer, losing her right breast to the disease, and had two pre-teen daughers, Linda and Pammy, with her husband Pete who is a bit less adept at farming as Ty. They all live together on their thousand acre farm. The youngest sister Caroline has moved to Des Moines as a lawyer with her soon-to-be husband (but whom we never meet.) Things seem to be fairly stable until the arrival of Jess Clark, a conscienscious objector to the Vietman War who comes home to his passive-aggressive father Harald, a neighbor of the Clarks) and his brother Loren after a fourteen year absense.

We learn of how Ginny cared for her sister during the chemotherapy and how, once she was healthy, she sent the girls away to boarding school. "after the girls were sent away, I had a hint, again, for the first time since Linda was born, of how it was in those families, how generations of silence could flow from a single choice." (p. 9). This rather ominous observation about silence will pay off about two-thirds of the way through the narrative.

There follows a slow, careful seduction of Ginny by Jess Clark, starting with a discussion between the two while Ginny planted tomatoes in her garden and she fills in Jess about the death of his mother while he was away, Rose's breast cancer. They talk of one of Jess' lovers:
"We worked together at the crisis center. I watched her for a long time before I fell in love with her. There was plenty of time to notice."
"That's the homely woman's dream, you know. That someone will see actual beauty where others never have."
(p. 52). Naturally, Ginny is speaking for more than just the lover.

The precise moment when things start to unravel, besides this gentle game between Ginny and Jess Clark, is when Caroline hesitates and finally refuses to be a benefactor of Larry's precipitated handing over of the farm to the daughters. This refusal has a cavalcade of effects, none the least of which was a fundamental change in the relationship between Ginny and Rose. Before the change due to subsequent events, their "bond had a particular fertility that I was wise enough to appreciate, and also, perhaps, wise enough to appreciate in silence. Rose wouldn't have stood for any sentimentality. (p. 62). The silence motif is ominously repeated again.

In the interim before the storm (literally), the families start playing an extended match of Monopoly which gives everyone a feeling, precarious in nature as it turns out, of things staying the way they were. Jess talks about his life out on the West Coast before his return using an interesting image: I've been like one of those cartoon characters who saws off the limb between him and the tree, and just hangs in the air for a second before the limb drops. But the second has lasted almost fourteen years. I guess I feel like if I reattach the limb, somehow, then the restlessness that's always gotten into me whenever there's been the chance to settle down and figure out a life will go away. (p. 73). This will also prove poetic.

Some time later, Ginny takes her nieces to a municipal pool and learns something about her mother from Mary, a neighbor from town. The revelation shakes her to her core and sets her to analyzing her memories of her mother who passed away from cancer when Ginny was ten: It's as easy to judge her misapprehensions and mistakes as it is to judge your own, and to fall into a habit of disrespect, as if all her feelings must have been as shallow and jejeune as you think yours used to be. (p. 93).

Pammy seems to feel some premonition of the future trouble and significantly holds her sunglasses case in her hand on the way home, I knew that all children had certain precious belongings, odd things that represented happiness to them, but the way she cradled that case in her hand seemed poignant to me, emblematic of some sort of deprivation that she could feel but not define, or, maybe, admit to. (p. 95)

Tension rises with Daddy as he is not able to settle into his self-imposed retirement and the family dinners become torture: It was exhausting just to hold ourselves at the table, magnets with our northern poles pointing into the center of the circle. You felt a palpable sense of relief when you gave up and let yourself fall away from the table and wound up in the kitchen getting something, or in the bathroom running the water and splashing it on your face." (p. 101)

A few hushed confessions later, Ginny hesitates to tell someone, relapsing into the familier family default of silence: "But that was a bad idea, confiding in someone. After you've confided long enough in someone, he or she assumes the antagonism you might have just been trying out. It was better for now to keep this conversation to myself." (p. 119)

Things continue to degrade and more revelations come out. Rose describes her father thus:"I know that his face is a black ocean and there's always always always the temptation to drown in that ocean and to just give yourself up and sink. You've got to stare back. You've got to remind yourself what he is, what he does, what he did. Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he's having right now. That's how he keeps betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction." (p. 216). That is a particularly accurate and perceptive picture of an abusive personality.

The thing that impressed me most about the book was its sagacity around suffering and loss: "There is no wisdom to be gained from the death of a parent. There are no memories of the parent that are not rendered painful by the death, no event surrounding the death that is redeemed by a single happy thought." (p. 292)

After some significant losses, we learn that "[T]he funeral home has a concession. Shelf paper, drawer liners, inflatable sweater hangers, dusters made from raven's feathers, everything for the housewife widow." (p. 301). Because it would be a spoiler, and because it is painful to read, I'll leave page 302 for the reader to discover but just place here that this is so incredibly relevant and, again at the risk of sounding repetitive, perceptive. Ginny describes her father's I: "I did this and don't think you can tell me this and you haven't the foggiest idea about that, and then he impresses us with blows with the weight of his 'I' and the feathery nonexistence of ourselves, our questions, our doubts, our differences of opinion. That was Daddy." (p. 306)

Ginny thinks about a murder that had disturbed the community earlier in the book where a girlfriend had gone out to a violent boyfriend and he had killed her and "of how she had gone out to meet him, throwing caution to the wind. We had all done that. Daddy first, the others after. We had done it without knowing why, or maybe even that that was what we were doing. And then our cautious lives had grown intolerable in retrospect, and every possibility of returning to then equally intolerable." (p. 322)

There is an environmental subcurrent to the novel because the pesticides and chemicals used for farming have most likely resulted in the cancers and miscarriages and other health issues suffered by the characters.

Overall, this book is rather dark and honestly, I did not sleep well after I finished it. It brings up very uncomfortable truths in a brutally honest, lucid way. And condemns harshly the silence that families use to perpetuate the violence from generation to generation. For the Cooks, this is fortunately wiped out, with a slight exception for Ginny who still seeks out her father's darkness: "This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others. (p. 371).

My rated list of Pulitzer Winners: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1...
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews516 followers
June 1, 2017
Hawkeyes, Hayseeds and Hotheads
Flammable Flamily Secrets

Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1991 National Book Critics Circle fiction award, Jane Smiley's novel represents a robust, red-faced reworking of Shakespeare's King Lear, a family tragedy set against the bucolic Iowa farmland.

Lear here is Larry Cook, an elderly farmer who owns 1,000 acres he decides to gift to his three daughters via a business entity. The oldest daughter Ginny is thrilled, the youngest daughter Caroline, an attorney who resides a couple of hours away, thinks it's a bad idea and wants nothing to do with it, while the gesture stokes hot coals of resentment from middle daughter Rose, who claims dad sexually abused her repeatedly over many years after the girls' mom died. Thus the gift becomes a sort of molotov cocktail thrown into a huge tinderbox of incendiary family secrets.

Smiley sensitively handles the sex abuse allegations: Rose senses daddy's using this as repentance or hush money for his awful violations and wants vengeance; Ginny has repressed all memories of any abuse and tries to act as peacemaker between Rose and daddy; and, Caroline was sheltered from daddy's advances by her two sisters. Smiley deftly displays how fiery resentment can eat away at the soul of the victim, Rose, as cancer slowly consumes her body. A family fracture reaches seismic proportions between Ginny and Rose, on the one hand, and on the other Daddy and Caroline, who ironically thinks her sisters are being greedy and ungrateful after Rose lashes out at dad who thereafter seems to suffer progressive dementia.

The novel covers themes from truth, pride and generational conflict to natural justice and mental illness. Throw in adulterous sexual relations, sibling sexual rivalry, a symbolic severe thunderstorm and a blinding of a neighbor by chemical "accident" and you have a modern day Shakespearean tragedy in the land of hawkeyes, hayseeds and hotheads.
Profile Image for Paul Falk.
Author 9 books128 followers
October 5, 2017
The family dynamics of this knock-about tale remind me of a ride that I haven't been on since I was a kid: Bumper cars. Chances are, you've been in one too. This character-driven narrative hammered out many complexities shared among family members. In this case, the Cooks. The author presented a dynamic, well-written storyline with twists and turns that kept me amused, bewildered and saddened. The main characters and there were several, were well-developed. So much so that I felt a connection with each and every one of them. The narrative started slow, built momentum as it gathered steam and had an ending well worth waiting for.

The Cook family lived on an Iowa farm in Zebulon County. One thousand acres in all. Large by local standards. Larry, the patriarch, the father, had his hands full with his farm and three daughters - Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Oldest to youngest. Or is it, did they have their hands full with him? Now grown women. Their mother had died when they were in grade school. Two decades ago.

One day, out of the clear blue, Larry felt it was time to call it quits. No one had known what had brought that on. And Larry wasn't talking. He gave the farm to his daughters with just one stipulation. It had to be run like clockwork. Just the way their father did. No exceptions. Big shoes to fill. To the daughters, it seemed like a good idea at the time. That was until everything went sideways. Caroline, the youngest, wanted no part of it. She was through with farming. A lawyer now and had had enough of that kind of life. This caused a poignant ripple effect in the family. A volcano poising to explode. Prisoners of one thousand acres.
Profile Image for Rebbie.
142 reviews111 followers
February 8, 2017
Well that was depressing. I don't even know what to say about it, other than the fact that despite my serious issues with the lack of morality and accountability from both older sisters, and the obnoxious baby sister who deliberately stuck her head in the sand, the book moved me deeply.

Perhaps it's because I related to the darkest parts of it all too well. The melancholy mixed with the loneliness that the choice to stick up for oneself and break free will inevitably bring, felt like a heavy, dusty coat that I'm all too familiar with shrouding myself in.

Jane Smiley did a superb job with showing the hard, cold truth of dealing with dark family secrets head-on. I suspect that many people, mainly those who never have to choose between themselves and their family, believe that the freedom associated with choosing yourself feels good.

It does not. But it does feel liberating, even though it hurts and it's confusing and above all, it takes guts because the cost is more than most people are willing to pay. And Smiley captured this with simplicity, humility and an awe-inspiring understanding of the messy emotional tendencies of human beings.

I didn't give it 5 stars because I utterly detested the lack of responsibility and remorse that one of the sisters showed her husband when she made an immoral and hurtful decision behind his back. Many people would indeed be that callous, but that level of oblivious selfishness didn't jive with her loyal personality. I think it would have been more true-to-life had Smiley permitted this character to have a different outcome with showing her husband the compassion and respect that he deserved.

Profile Image for Scott Axsom.
47 reviews141 followers
February 17, 2017
Written in 1991, Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres pretends to be about the death of the American farm but, if I’ve ever read a book richer in subtext, I cannot recall it. She tells the story via the lives of three daughters of a third generation farming family in Iowa in the 1970’s. Through the obsequious character of Ginny, Smiley describes the ethos of small town/agrarian American life in unrelenting detail and, by doing so, she describes the death of an American myth.

The layers of A Thousand Acres are many and Smiley offers a measureless stream of betrayal and death; the death of innocence, of illusion, of hope, of trust, of a way of life and, most of all, the death of a family resulting from the exposure of its most sacred myths to the stark light of honest reflection. She describes with heart-rending frankness the universally-familiar Machiavellian aspects of family dynamics and, by placing them in the context of the great American bucolic dream, she renders them commonplace.

As the middle sister, Rose, comes to the sharp focus that cancer brings [not a spoiler], she describes her mother’s well-worn advice; “I’m grabby and jealous and selfish and Mommy said it would drive people away, so I’ve been good at hiding it… You’ll notice that Mommy never said, ‘Rose, just be yourself.’” Rose's realization summarizes life in small town America, or in any family, be it natural or chosen. There are myths to which we subscribe and succumb, regarding our friends, our loved ones, our selves – myths that we’re convinced make life easier, make our relationships functional - and “A Thousand Acres” is a stark and painfully beautiful description of the cancer (both physical and psychic) that those myths, in truth, represent. The tale serves as a profound reminder to live honestly and authentically, regardless of the pain that's sometimes necessary to achieve such a state of grace.

I’ve been lucky in my reading lately. I’ve just completed two of the best books I’ve ever read; Angle of Repose followed by A Thousand Acres. This book, I think, is now tied for second, along with The Grapes of Wrath, among my favorite books of all time. This is a truly Pulitzer-worthy novel and one I’d recommend to anyone who longs to understand the pernicious, sometimes ruinous, natures of both American and family mythologies. A poignant and eye-opening read.
Profile Image for Saxon.
140 reviews31 followers
May 15, 2009
This won a Pulitzer Prize and acts as yet another testament to why the Pulitzer Prize should largely be ignored. However, the fact that it did win a Pulitzer makes me feel less embarrassed about reading it...even if it was just for class.

A Thousand Acres, told from the middle of three daughters, is a story about a small farming community in rural Iowa during the mid-1970s and is loosely based on King Lear. A bunch of tragic shit happens that is mostly the fault of the men. This proves to be Smiley's biggest fault and large reason why this novel is no bueno. She is obviously too caught up in creating women characters that will please her the elder feminist community that she completely neglects the development of the male characters. Thus, they all end up without much complexity and can be basically be written off, like Smiley pretty much does with them, as bad, evil, assholes.

However, the problems don't stop there. The banal prose and mostly predictable storyline certainly don't help the cause. I don't really see what critics saw in this book.

Guess who gets to go write an essay on it now. Bummer.
Profile Image for Ana Cristina Lee.
652 reviews246 followers
July 27, 2021
Jane Smiley ha pretendido dibujar un completo fresco, casi una epopeya, del modo de vida de los granjeros americanos, una clase social que ha sufrido grandes cambios desde que en el siglo XIX los colonos europeos empezaran a cultivar las tierras de manera masiva. Situada en el estado de Iowa – el mayor productor de soja y porcino de USA – esta epopeya/tragedia nos adentra en el devenir de una saga familiar que refleja las tensiones del mundo rural. Estamos en los años 70, la época de Jimmy Carter, y en plena transformación agrícola vemos a familias enteras que tienen que abandonar o malvender sus tierras, agobiados por los créditos o los bajos precios del mercado. También, como es tradicional en este tipo de drama rural, hay enemistades que perduran durante generaciones y tensiones con los hijos cuando éstos intentan ubicarse en otro entorno más urbano y huir de la dureza de la vida en la granja.

Todo esto lo ha combinado Jane Smiley con una especie de reivindicación feminista del clásico de Shakespeare, King Lear. Como explica en esta entrevista: https://elpais.com/diario/1996/07/15/... es una tendencia entre los escritores actuales, volver la vista a la obra de Shakespeare, ya que como dice la autora:

Shakespeare es el principio de la era moderna, él la define. Y ahora que termina muchos lo buscan para ser conscientes de quiénes son y tratar de imaginar el porvenir.

Así, el paralelismo es un granjero que transmite sus tierras a sus tres hijas, siguiendo el esquema del rey Lear que reparte su reino antes de su muerte, también entre sus tres hijas y los respectivos cónyuges. La nota distintiva es que aquí vivimos en conflicto desde el punto de vista de los personajes femeninos y en concreto de Ginny, la hija mayor. Como en Lear, se establece una alianza entre las dos hermanas mayores, Ginny y Rose, mientras que la pequeña – Caroline/Cordelia – se aleja de ellas para alinearse con el padre y, en teoría encarna el verdadero amor filial.

Un tema importante es la vejez como decadencia y el impulso generacional de matar al padre, una vez que su poder declina. Tal como dicen las hermanas en King Lear:

Pobre viejo estúpido, que aún trata de ejercer la autoridad a la que ha renunciado.

Pues bien, todo este planteamiento – ciertamente arriesgado e interesante – fue premiado con el Pulitzer en 1992, pero tengo que decir que a mí el desarrollo no me ha acabado de convencer. Por varias razones:

1. La voz narradora: Ginny, la hermana mayor, me ha resultado una narradora poco interesante, pesada y desprovista de humor, que no añade ningún interés a los hechos que relata de manera algo mecánica. También sus acciones me resultan poco coherentes, como las relaciones con su marido Ty y con el resto de la familia, que oscilan entre la sumisión total y la anarquía, sin aparente justificación. Es cierto que va evolucionando y al final, cuando mira a los miembros de su familia y dice:

La sensación más fuerte era la de que ahora los conocía a todos. Que si durante treinta y seis años habían nadado a mi alrededor complejas figuras que, en el mejor de los casos, yo había percibido tenuemente a través de aguas fangosas, ahora todo estaba claro.

asistimos a una especie de epifanía que nos aclara algunas cosas sobre sus complejas dinámicas familiares.

2. Demasiados detalles técnicos: la narración es prolija, ya que pretende ser un gran fresco de la vida rural de las zonas del medio oeste, pero creo que hay mucha información irrelevante y que no por acumular datos se transmite un mejor caudal a nivel literario. En mi caso, muchas partes me han aburrido, en boca además, como ya he mencionado, de una narradora poco interesante.

3. Personajes desdibujados: Después de leer páginas y páginas sigo sin tener una impresión clara de los personajes, las relaciones entre ellos y de las razones de sus actos. Creo que esta es una de las peores críticas que se puede hacer a una novela.

4. Seguir la plantilla de Shakespeare – a lo que no acabo de encontrar una buena justificación aparte de la resonancia mediática – conlleva episodios metidos con calzador. Si un personaje de King Lear es atacado y cegado cruelmente por otro pues aquí el homólogo tiene un accidente con el mismo resultado. Y así en otros episodios que pueden resultar gratuitos y forzados.

5. Entre el aburrimiento y la tragedia. En medio de una narración monótona y una calma en que nunca ocurre nada los personajes pasan de repente del modo: ‘pásame-la-sal-por-favor’ a ‘eres-una-mala-p-teviamatá’. Te despiertas bruscamente como: ¿qué-me-he-perdido?

6. Hay una acumulación de dramas: abortos, enfermedades, adulterios, violencia doméstica, abuso a menores, incesto…Y está bien si la trama lo pide, pero a mí me suena a un intento desesperado de captar la atención del lector – para compensar la parte tractores.

7. La traducción. Esto merecería un capítulo aparte. En otros libros en que he criticado la traducción he puesto unos cuantos ejemplos, pero en este caso tendría que copiar una parte substancial del libro. Así que no profundizo, pero quiero enviar un mensaje en una botella:

Hola? Tusquets? Un modesto presupuesto para unas gafas, un rotulador rojo y unas horitas de lectura nos ahorrarían muchos embarrassments (que no, no son embarazos). Sólo una puntualización, porque eso ha dolido: no existe el acento en inglés, así que la pasión que ha llevado a acentuar repetidamente ‘Masón City’ y ‘Jimmy Cárter’ es lingüísticamente promiscua, además de poco consistente, ya que son los dos únicos términos ingleses que han merecido la tilde.

Al final sí que le he dado tres estrellas, porque entiendo que es una obra monumental en su estilo y de buena calidad literaria, pero le he encontrado algunos fallos que me han impedido disfrutar de la lectura.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,401 reviews11.7k followers
February 28, 2021
This is a retelling of King Lear set on a Iowan farm. I have no attachment to the play whatsoever, and even if this novel borrows major themes from it, the book stands on its own as a complex family saga. I liked its feminist lens, and I loved the dynamics of this tortured family. The novel drove home the idea that the same events could be experienced by different family members in starkly different ways remarkably well.
Profile Image for Judith E.
547 reviews191 followers
May 26, 2021
There’s more to the Cook farming family than a slice of after dinner pie and a cup of coffee. Microscopically, Jane Smiley unravels the family’s complex dynamics starting with their outside appearances then progressing to the inner rationalizations and defense mechanisms of this complex family and farming community.

The paced revelations keep stacking up amidst the Iowa farming landscape and the farming culture. There is an undercurrent that begins oozing questionable behaviors from more than one character. Smiley’s brilliant descriptions of farm life (canning tomatoes, running combines, weaning piglets, spraying poisons, laying drainage tiles) is a character unto itself.

At times, the story and the facade of innocence reminded me of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. One of the finest, most gripping psychological dissections I’ve read of the way people deal with secrets and trauma amidst everyday life. I couldn’t put it down.
Profile Image for Antigone.
500 reviews741 followers
August 19, 2021
Housed within the bare bones structure of Shakespeare's King Lear, this Pulitzer Prize-winning work recounts the tale of an elderly American farmer pre-dispersing his assets to his three grown daughters - two of whom accept his gift, the third protesting the decision's wrongness and thereby losing her share. Chaos ensues. (Because, of course, this is the pale horse Death is riding and we're all pretty existentially unsettled by that.)

Jane Smiley takes the matter to earth; that rich and loamy soil nestled beneath the patchwork quilt of homesteads blanketing America's heartland. Our central character and narrator is Ginny Cook, sister of Rose and Caroline, wife of Ty, and one of the two who chose to receive the bounty on offer. It's an interesting figure to select, this woman who goes along, whose history comes to reveal a lifetime eked out of the death-inducing practice of compliance. One would expect her to be a supporting player as this is what her personality portends, yet here she is front and center in a manner that sets the entire narrative dynamic on its head. How much can we, as readers, learn from a sidelined player? Her limitations become our own, and that is where the author triumphs - in making such an ambivalent presence provocative.

By the time I was frying the bacon and eggs and covertly watching him stare out the living-room window toward our south field, my plan to let him have it seemed like another silly thing. I couldn't find a voice to speak in, to say, "Were you down in Des Moines Thursday or not?" or "Caroline thought you hung up on her when she called." This is something I do often, this phrasing and rephrasing of sentences in my mind, scaling back assertions and direct questions so that they do not offend, so that they can slip sideways into someone's consciousness without my having really asked them.

How defended are we? As daughters, as wives, as women, as human beings? And how much do those defenses cost us?

I felt another animal inside myself, a horse haltered in a tight stall, throwing its head and beating its feet against the floor, but the beams and the bars and the halter rope hold firm, and the horse wears itself out and accepts the restraint that moments before had been an unendurable goad.

This novel is a brilliant piece of business, and deserving of every award it got.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,901 reviews220 followers
September 8, 2020
A dysfunctional Iowa farming family falls apart when the patriarch decides to leave his thousand-acre property to two of his three daughters. His mental state deteriorates. Family infighting ensues. A neighbor’s son, who had gone to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft, returns to the area and develops relationships with two women. It is set in 1979, a time when family farming was becoming increasingly difficult.

Protagonist Ginny, eldest of three sisters, is the narrator. She is married with no children. Her mother died at an early age and she has had to play a motherly role in her sisters’ lives. It is not a cheery story. Several female characters have experienced abuse. The writing is eloquent. It is character driven and none of the characters is particularly likeable. The plot is about a farming life and the relationships among the characters.

I liked the first half of the story better than the second. This book is a retelling of King Lear. It is not essential to know ahead of time in order to enjoy it; however, if I had figured it out sooner, some of the plot transitions, which seem to come out of the blue, would have made more sense.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992. I am slowly making my way through Jane Smiley’s catalogue. My favorite remains The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, which I highly recommend.

Profile Image for Whitaker.
294 reviews502 followers
April 9, 2011
I know a guy who grew up in a small rural village in Sweden. It was a small, tight-knit community. Everybody knew everybody. And nobody was different. If someone took up a hobby, say, macramé pretty soon all the women would be doing it. It was all very Stepford; difference was not something to be encouraged. He got out of there as soon as he could.

Imagine, though, how it would be to live like that: under the constant eyes of your community, gossip buzzing around about you, judging you and weighing your worth. One toe out of line and you’d know it because Mrs Cooper at the grocery store would be giving you funny looks, and Ed over at the butcher would stop talking to you. Imagine living under the weight of that constant scrutiny where you have to keep up appearances all the time.

Jane Smiley takes that, and makes it Tragedy. And I do mean Tragedy with the capital T. A Thousand Acres is reworking of King Lear, but to call it that would be to demean it because it is not an update, a retelling of the same story. Sure, many of the same events take place; not all of them though play out in exactly the same way. So why even bother to drink from that well? Because she can call upon our knowledge of how Tragedy was supposed to work. I think you’d still get a lot out of this novel without that knowledge, but knowing about it deepens immeasurably your appreciation of it.

We had the Tragic Hero with the Fatal Character Flaw, fighting against Fate or Destiny. The Tragic Hero would often be male and of royal lineage. If not royal then at least of noble stature. Our Hero here is a heroine. And she’s a farmer’s wife and daughter. And what’s she fighting? What grand force is she pitting her meagre reserves of strength against? Why, it’s the community: the unendurable weight of their judging gaze, the commandment to be the same, to keep up appearances and keep your goddamn skeletons in the closet where we can't see them. It’s all the years of tradition and conservatism tied up with being the fourth generation of farmers on the same land.

She takes all of that, and she takes Ginny, and she takes King Lear and she makes it her own. One of the more brutal, violent plays in the Shakespearean canon is transposed to the American rural countryside. And in many ways, it’s a very American tale. Partly because it’s about a farming community in America, but mostly because it’s about the struggle of the individual to get out from under, to get away from all the crushing conformism and to find your own voice, no matter how small, no matter how meek,and no matter who you piss off by doing so. And from that she elevates this story of oppressed rural women, of incest, rape, madness and murder, and makes it Tragedy. Brilliant.
Profile Image for Ann-Marie "Cookie M.".
1,111 reviews121 followers
June 28, 2020
This book profoundly influenced both my brother and me, who grew up in semi-rural Wisconsin in the 1960's and '70's. Our family was so concentrated on keeping its own secrets it never occurred to us other families around us could have their own, worse ones.
Profile Image for Steve.
803 reviews226 followers
December 18, 2014
A clunky retelling of Lear. Only at the very end do you get a touch of Lear's darkness, but it's not enough to save the novel. One of the most overrated novels I've ever read. I think this book won some awards, and might have been an Oprah Book before there were Oprah Books. A classic example of why some awards and book club favorites are not to be trusted. Come to think of it, I've only read one great novel by Smiley, The Greenlanders. And that book is unlike anything else she's done.
Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,382 followers
October 30, 2017
I loved this Shakespeare-by-way-of-Steinbeck Lear of the Corn. I read it directly after a re-read of Lear, so some of my pleasure came from seeing how clever Smiley is with her source, but it's a tremendous book in any case.

It's insanely ambitious to try to write Lear as a novel at all; it's a crazy play and most of it doesn't make any real-world sense. Realism isn't really the point there. But Smiley has figured most of it out. She makes dad's Alzheimer's explicit, of course, and adds some backstory that helps to explain the extreme nature of everyone's emotions and actions - I suppose some might call a low blow, since it necessarily puts us on their side, but it made sense for me. She ducks a few things: probably wisely, she doesn't try to do Harold's (Gloucester's) fake suicide, which doesn't really work in Lear either, and she drops the character of the Fool.

But most of the characters, and most of the major plot developments, are there, interpreted in ways that I found interesting. Smiley throws in these tiny details: pelicans appear in a moment of crucial decision, echoing Lear's weird dis on his daughters:
Twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters.
Back then people thought pelican mothers would cut their own breasts and let their babies drink their blood. I know, yeah, people in the olden days were weird.

But she kinda punks out on the ending, and I'm not sure why. So that was a minor bummer for me. Or bumming lack of bummer.
Profile Image for Laura .
363 reviews134 followers
November 20, 2021
Yes - this deserves the 5 stars. It's a big project - ambitious and Smiley deals with it well, keeping our interest and maintaining our credibility - especially in our narrator, the eldest daughter Ginny. As I reached the end I realised that there is a flaw in this one narrator structure which is that we never quite see the incredible toll all of the events in Ginny's life take on her. Of course I've seen the film- many years ago - and that sudden flash to the film made me realise how we as viewers can see the anguish, the torment, the incredible suffering that Ginny must endure. The ending pulls all the various threads together - Ginny reminisces with her estranged husband Ty - asking him questions that she didn't ask three years earlier - "Did you know what Daddy was going to say to us? Did you speak to Caroline about us? etc.

I felt when I was reading that last section that so much happened that we barely had time to digest some of Ginny's reactions - the problem of course with being sole narrator is that you have to spend a lot of time/focus on explaining the events, this, then this, Rose did that, Harold etc.

The one area where Ginny's feelings ring loud and clear is in that midnight conversation with her sister Rose, when she discovers that Rose has been sleeping with Jess Clark - the man that Ginny also has fallen for.

And yes - we should mention the Shakespeare play - King Lear. At the beginning of Smiley's book I kept asking myself what aspect of the historical play has she inverted? It seemed like she was working hard to invert the roles of Goneril and Regan the undutiful and spiteful daughters of Lear - but gradually I realised that Shakespeare's play holds solid more or less throughout Smiley's A Thousand Acres.

The story of abuse and especially Rose's destructive behaviour is not easy to read, but the novel holds a very simple message. The big farm - symbol of success and wealth is paid for in multiple ways. What appears to be dominant on the surface cannot hold - a law of nature - its success creates the seeds of destruction.
1,591 reviews87 followers
October 17, 2017
This is the story of a farming family in the second half of the 20th century, a domineering, abusive patriarch and his three adult daughters. When the father unexpectedly decides to sign over the farm to his daughters and son-in-laws, he kicks over the first domino in a chain of events which will shatter the daughters’ coping mechanisms and topple the precarious family structure. This is brilliantly written, each character so finely painted, the interactions so nuanced, individual motivations revealed in all their complexities. Smiley has a magnificent ability to understand frail people and broken families and to convey their pain with unflinching realism and sensitivity.
Profile Image for Leslie.
2,668 reviews202 followers
October 27, 2016
Wow!! The drama and impact of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel increases more and more the further you go. A compelling read that I highly recommend.

The family dynamics of both the Cook family and their nearest neighbors, the Clarks, start off seemingly so smooth and normal and unravel so completely.

Plenty to think about so more may come...
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