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Through Painful Toil: A Thousand Acres

As a student of fiction that revolves around the farming life, I confess with a bit of embarrassment that I had not read Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer for fiction, until very recently. Perhaps what put me off of the book was seeing the film adaptation, which, while fairly true to the plot as I recall, simply did not carry the same sort of power.

The novel relates the difficult relationships that take place when an aging and successful farmer passes the baton to the next generation. The patriarch of Smiley’s novel, Larry Cook, like Lear, whose presence is quite clear in the story, has fathered three daughters, two of whom have married and live within sight of their father’s house and help with the farming and one who has moved away to Des Moines, becoming a lawyer. When Larry attempts to pass his farming operation and its thousand acres on to these daughters, the youngest, Caroline expresses some reservations. Like Lear, Larry misreads the motivations of his youngest, although the older girls cannot be compared with Regan and Goneril for malice and greed.

A great deal of the plot of this novel derives from a rather tired confluence of feminism and environmentalism. Ginny, the narrator, has suffered five miscarriages, which are attributed without any supporting evidence to pollution by agricultural chemicals of the area groundwater. Her sister Rose has experienced breast cancer, which they chalk up to the same source. Eventually we learn that both Rose and Ginny had been raped by their father as children, although Ginny has apparently repressed the memory for decades and Rose, retaining it, has elected to not only stay in the neighborhood but raise her two daughters just down the road from the old lech. Honestly, I believe that A Thousand Acres would be a good deal more focused, although less fertile material for Oprah’s Book Club, if it did not lean so hard on these aspects of the plot.

What fascinates me in this story is not its manifesto of liberal clich├ęs but the genuine struggle that this family undergoes in attempting to pass its leadership and property from one generation to the next. The motivations, loyalties, and alliances that emerge from that swirl of very natural, very necessary movement provide a great deal of interest even without the strong-willed autocrat of a father being exposed as a pedophile. Ginny, we eventually learn, doesn’t know much of anything for sure. She’s not certain how she feels about her husband and is taken aback when she discovers her husband’s loyalties to her father. Her professed feelings for both of her sisters stand at odds with the actions she takes, culminating in her creation of poisoned liver sausage for Rose’s pantry.

The theme that I find pervading this book, although one that I’m not sure Smiley intended, is that of self-reliance. The farmer Larry Cook is miles from one of the cooperative farmers that Wendell Berry presents. Larry is self-reliant to a fault, swallowing up weaker farmers when their efforts flounder. Despite the skills of his sons-in-law, Larry holds no real respect for them. Despite the loving attentions of his two older daughters, he treats them abysmally. Larry perceives himself as a king. The tragedy of A Thousand Acres lies in the disintegration of the family. Where five family members had been working together to produce a crop, by the end three are dead and the others have moved away. The community around the Cooks generally sides with Larry, indicating that they really haven’t known the family particularly well.

I don’t believe Jane Smiley intended this, but I would argue that her most successful novel is a working out of the themes from Genesis 3. With humanity fallen and refusing to accept the authority of God or other instituted powers, a variety of tragic outcomes inevitably proceed.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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