A Thousand Acres Paperback – 1 Jun 1998
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Ageing 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 cut-throat lenders. In this winner of the US 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Smiley captures the essence of such a life with stark, painful detail. --Amazon.com
‘A Thousand Acres is a strong, gnarled shocker of a novel… superb.’
‘Epic fiction of the very highest order, naturalistic , penetrating and wholly absorbing.’
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The novel is set in the fictional county of Zebulon, not that far from the real town of Mason City, in northern Iowa, about half way between Des Moines, and the Twin Cities, in Minnesota. The story is told from the viewpoint of Ginny, the eldest of three sisters. It was her great grandparents, on her mother's side, who came from England in the 1890's, purchased some swampy land from afar, drained it, and found themselves in possession of some of the most fertile farmland in the world. Over the next three generations, through hard work, some luck and shrewd purchases, the farm was expanded to, as the title indicated, a 1000 acres, a fitting patrimony for any parent to leave to his children.
Smiley is a master story teller. She beautiful develops 10-15 characters. She smoothly backs and fills across time. There is the narrator, Ginny, now 36, and her relationship with her two sisters, Caroline and Rose. Then there is their mother, who died too young, and their father, who is attempting to "let go" of the farm to the next generation, with disastrous consequences. All three sisters are married; two farm the land with their husbands, while Caroline is a lawyer off in Des Moines, with no interest in farming. Ginny has yet to bear a child; Rose has two. And then there are the neighbors. It is the waning days of the Carter Administration, and Jess Clark, who avoided Vietnam by deserting to Canada, comes home to a nominally let-bygones-be-bygones welcome from his conservative father, Harold. Naturally the banker is not portrayed in a very favorable light, having issues with "toxins" in his body.
There are real toxins however, routinely used in farming, with deleterious impacts of the principal characters, which should literally be food for thought for all of us. This novel has often been referred to as a "King Lear" in the American plains, since the main dynamic involves a very headstrong man and his three daughters. Smiley has a real knack for maintaining a very high level of dramatic tension throughout the novel. There are the interludes in which she discusses the nature of the land, of farming, the finances, the nature of the farm "community," childhood joys and pleasures, and then she "slams" you with a major plot development in a sentence or two. Little joy or solace is provided by the natural setting and the very real work of farming; instead Smiley reveals deep-rooted antipathies and hatreds among the principal characters, with numerous grievances carefully held and cultivated, awaiting the proper time for revenge. Early on, on page 9, Smiley establishes that theme with: "...how generations of silence could flow from a single choice." And towards the end, she sums up how those grievances can be glossed over when required, due to outside threats, when she says: .... "the marvelous engine of appearances had started up..." (p.293). The author added a brilliant touch of the main characters playing the board game, "Monopoly," which reflected the real life machinations in accumulating the 1000-acre farm.
Some love, some sex, much anxiety, and worse, rooted in the nexus of economics and family relationships. A brilliant 6-star essential American novel.
The story is told through the eyes of Ginny, one of the three sisters, and with her we watch Larry's kingdom decline and fail as well as his mental health. The author does this really well and the feeling that it is all inevitable remains with us throughout the story. The narrative doesn't follow the original slavishly but the key moments are there and they are seamlessly woven into the story so that, even though I was looking out for them, I was still surprised when they occurred and then delighted with how the author had used them.
This is a tragedy. It is a story of power misused, mental health problems, sibling rivalry and jealousy. It is a beautifully written novel and the narrator,Ginny, is a sympathetic character even when she is doing things which don't seem very sympathetic. It is full of tension and leads remorselessly to the end. It is clever and very emotional. I was riveted by this story despite its harrowing nature because of the quality of the writing.
Narrated by Ginny, the eldest daughter and equivalent of the play's unsympathetic character Goneril, 'A Thousand Acres' makes the behaviour of the older girls seem more reasonable and less selfish, and calls into question the motivations and behaviour of their father Larry. Giving the narration to Ginny was a clever move, as it allows us to sympathise more with the sisters, though at the same time it isn't necessarily excusing all of their actions.
Anyone who has read, watched or knows of the play will know that all of this doesn't end happily. The book is extremely readable and exquistely well paced, drawing the reader in bit by bit, taking the storyline from mundane normality of farm life into a tragedic battle in which the characters themselves seem slightly bemused to find themselves. It's utterly believable throughout and packs an emotional punch.
Whilst it does follow most aspects of King Lear, cleverly adapting them to suit the modern setting, there are also some departures. This adds to the interest if you are familiar with the play, as you're always looking to see when comparison situations will come up or if things will differ from the original.
Despite never having visited America, I felt like I knew not just the scenary of the setting but the mindset of the locals, the politics of it, even though the community of the novel is very different from anything I have ever lived in. Smiley's prose integrates the reader effortlessly in the world of the characters.
I would highly recommend this book, it is original, intriguing, well written and one of the best things I have read all year.
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