Whitaker's Reviews > A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
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really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-published-1950-and-after, z_2011-read, united-states

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.
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Reading Progress

April 1, 2011 – Started Reading
April 8, 2011 – Shelved
April 8, 2011 – Shelved as: fiction-published-1950-and-after
April 8, 2011 – Finished Reading
May 29, 2011 – Shelved as: z_2011-read
July 10, 2012 – Shelved as: united-states

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny I thought the movie was pretty good... didn't even know it was based on a book! Thanks, this looks like it's worth checking out.

message 2: by Christopher (new)

Christopher B. great review. you were terrific right down to the last paragraph, in which the better expression for "ire" would be "off-piss" rather than piss off.

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