Thousand Acres (Review)

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A Thousand Acres
Jane Smiley, 1991
384 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
December 2007
King Lear travels to Iowa, brought here in the late 20th century by Jane Smiley. This is Smiley's stunning tour de force, a Pulitzer Prize winner and many believe a contemporary classic.

A Thousand Acres is a modern re-telling of Shakespeare's famous tragedy, but told from the perspective of Ginny, a latter day Goneril (Lear's evil daughter in the original). In this version, Ginny/Goneril is the heroine.

We've had so many recent send-ups of the classics—Ahab's Wife, Bridget Jones's Diary, On Beauty, Mr. Timothy, and, of course, Wicked—that the novelty has worn off, if not worn thin. But A Thousand Acres was seminal, one of the first and still (along with On Beauty) the most dazzling.

A bare-bones outline is as follows: affluent farmer, Larry Cook (Lear), lives surrounded by his daughters and their husbands. All's well that ends well...until Larry decides to turn his farm over to his three daughters. Once deprived of power and responsibility, however, Larry's mental state deteriorates—he lashes out at his daughters, dragging them into court to regain the property. Ultimately, the story is Ginny's, as she struggles to find herself, to move out from under her father's and husband's shadow, and to achieve a life of her own.

The modern parallels with Shakespeare are finely wrought. Though hardly necessary, you might consider approaching Acres with some knowledge of the original. So, for example, you could ...

  1. Read Shakepeare's King Lear.... Right. Okay. Then how about this:
  2. Watch the very fine 1984 King Lear with Laurence Olivier or the pretty good 1997 BBC/PBS version with Ian Holm;
  3. Read Spark Notes "No Fear Shakespeare" (Oops, hear that?...the sound of my grad school diploma going down the drain.);
  4. Invite a literature prof or teacher to guide you through King Lear and /or A Thousand Acres, comparing and contrasting.

Or you could just read this magnificent work on its own.

Finally, check out the 1997 A Thousand Acres film version with Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards, and Colin Firth—after you've read the book, of course.

See our Reading Guide for A Thousand Acres.

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