Thousand Acres (Smiley)

A Thousand Acres
Jane Smiley, 1991
Knopf Doubleday
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400033836

Summary
Winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award

When Larry Cook, the aging patriarch of a rich, thriving farm in Iowa, decides to retire, he offers his land to his three daughters. For Ginny and Rose, who live on the farm with their husbands, the gift makes sense—a reward for years of hard work, a challenge to make the farm even more successful. But the youngest, Caroline, a Des Moines lawyer, flatly rejects the idea, and in anger her father cuts her out—setting off an explosive series of events that will leave none of them unchanged. A classic story of contemporary American life, A Thousand Acres strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a father, a daughter, a family.

"While she has written beautifully about families in all of her seven preceding books, [this] effort is her best: a family portrait that is also a near-epic investigation into the broad landscape, the thousand dark acres, of the human heart. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—September 26, 1949
Where—Los Angeles, California
Education—B.A., Vassar College; M.A., M.F.A, and Ph.D.,
   Iowa University
Awards—Pulitzer Prize, 1992; National Book Critics Circle
   Award, 1991
Currently—Northern California


Jane Smiley is the author of numerous works of fiction, including The Age of Grief, The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love & Good Will, A Thousand Acres (for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize), and Moo. She lives in northern California. (From the publisher.)

More
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 B.A. at Vassar College, then earned an 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.

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.

From 1981 to 1996, she taught undergrad and graduate creative writing workshops at Iowa State University. She continued teaching at ISU even after moving her primary residence to California.

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



Book Reviews
A brilliant modern take on Shakespeare's King Lear. We've had so many recent send-ups of the classics—Ahab's Wife, Bridget Jones's Diary, On Beauty, Mr. Timothy, even Wicked—that the novelty has worn off, if not worn thin. But A Thousand Acres was seminal, one of the first and still one of the most dazzling....
A LitLovers LitPick (Dec. '07)


While she has written beautifully about families in all of her seven preceding books, [this] effort is her best: a family portrait that is also a near-epic investigation into the broad landscape, the thousand dark acres, of the human heart."
The Washington Post Book World


A full, commanding novel.... This is a story bound and tethered to a lonely road in the Midwest, but drawn from a universal source.... A profoundly American novel.
The Boston Globe


Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the NBCC Award for fiction, a BOMC dual main selection and a five-week PW bestseller in cloth, Smiley's novel of family life on an insular Iowa farm raises profound questions about human conduct and moral responsibility.
Publishers Weekly


This important new novel by the author of Ordinary Love and Good Will and The Greenlanders is, first of all, a farm novel. Smiley lovingly creates an idyllic world of family farm life in Iowa in 1979: the neat yard, freshly painted house, clean clothes on the line, and fertile, well-tended fields. The owner of these well-managed acres is Larry Cook, who abruptly decides to turn the farm over to his two eldest daughters and their husbands. Ginny and Ty are hard-working farmers who try to placate her ornery father, while sister Rose and hard-drinking Pete try to stand up to him. Dark secrets surface after the property transfer, and the family's careful world unravels with a grim inevitability reminiscent of Smiley's splendid novella Good Will . Not to be missed. —Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA
Library Journal


Lear in Iowa. In a scalding, 20th-century version of Shakespeare's tragedy, Smiley—clawing open the "ingratitude" of a monarch's elder daughters to reveal a rage that could out-tempest Lear's—once again examines the buried secret hurts within families and the deadly results when damaged egos are unleashed: "The one thing...maybe no family could tolerate was things coming out into the open." Living under the iron order of that tyrannical, successful farmer Larry Cook, owner of 640 Iowa acres, are: daughter Rose, 34- year-old recovering cancer patient, mother of two and wife of ex- musician Pete, the perennial outsider, object of Larry's contempt; and childless Ginny, married to Tyler, an easygoing man who can betray with silence. Youngest daughter Caroline, whom motherless Rose and Ginny had raised and unfettered from Daddy, is a lawyer in Des Moines. It's at a well-liquored neighborhood social that Daddy announces he's giving up his farm to his three daughters. "I don't know," says cool lawyer Caroline, and Daddy slams off in a fury. As Rose and Ginny and their pleased husbands prepare for a release from Daddy's overlordship, something else is released when Rose—scenting out weakness in the terrible old man—hungers for revenge at last. Nothing but Daddy's repentance will do for deeds in the past so foul that Ginny has blotted out the memory and Rose has kept her silence. Circling around Rose's sizzling path toward impossible satisfaction, with Ginny in tow, are their husbands—one blunted, one death-bound—and a self-exiled native son who will drive a wedge between the two sisters, mingling a hate and lust/love that brings one to murder. As for Daddy's angel Caroline—come back to flight for Daddy (senile? maybe), never battered by home maelstroms—he's been simply a father "no more, no less." With the Bard's peak moments—the storm, a blinding, etc.—a potent tragedy immaculate in characters, stately pace, and lowering ambiance.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. How does the symbiotic relationship between person and place addressed in Ms. Smiley's choice of epigraph play itself out in the novel? How does setting shape character and vice versa? Which seems to have the upper hand? How is Zebulon County itself a major character in A Thousand Acres?

2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Ginny's narration? Is she able to maintain clarity and candor throughout her chronicling of events? What gets in the way? Is she as forthcoming in portraying herself as she is in discussing others? Why or why not? How would the novel differ if told from the perspective of Rose, Caroline, Jess, or Larry?

3. At the outset of the novel, Ginny confesses that retrospection has not revealed too much about the drama that unfolded when her father decided to hand over the farm to Rose and her and leave out Caroline: "I've thought over every moment of that party time and time again, sifting for pointers, signals, ways of knowing how to do things differently from the way they got done. There were no clues" [p. 13]. To what extent does the story that she then tells undermine this claim? What remains a mystery despite her scrutiny?

4. What are the most tragic elements of A Thousand Acres? Whichof these elements are rooted in the exercise of an individual's will, and which seem attributable to something beyond the scope of human volition? Where does the novel ultimately situate itself in the enduring fate v. free will debate?

5. What do you see as Smiley's debt to Shakespeare's King Lear? Where do the two works part ways? What provides A Thousand Acres with its autonomy despite its borrowed plot and characters?

6. Which of the issues explored in A Thousand Acres are unique to rural life in America? Which resonate regardless of geography? What does the novel reveal about variations and consistencies in the so-called American character?

7. What are a few of the guises in which passion appears in A Thousand Acres? What seems to lie at the root of each guise? Which do the most damage? Why do some characters yield to a desire for authority, acreage, etc., while others resist such temptations? Is there greater freedom in following passion or in checking it? What does the novel teach us about the nature of passion, restraint, and indulgence?

8. The interior lives of Caroline as well as Larry remain relatively unexamined compared to those of Rose and Ginny, their spouses, and Jess. What is the dramatic and thematic significance of keeping these characters in the shadows?

9. Contemplating her father's momentous decision, Ginny marvels at its apparent rashness. "He decided to change his whole life on Wednesday!" she exclaims. "Objectively, this is an absurdity" [p. 34]. Her remark points to the struggle against the whims of chance that appears throughout A Thousand Acres. How does the deliberate adherence to daily routine help the characters to weather the vicissitudes of the natural world and the inconsistency of human nature? What kind of solace and safety, if any, do seasonal chores and rituals provide?

10. Discuss the myriad ways that motherhood—and fatherhood—are weighed in the novel. How does Ginny's ineluctable desire to give birth shape her view of her present and past? What meaning does she derive from the many surrogate-maternal roles she plays? In what ways is her mother's long absence a constant presence?

11. "Our bond had a peculiar fertility that I was wise enough to appreciate, and also, perhaps, wise enough to appreciate in silence," Ginny says. "Rose wouldn't have stood for any sentimentality" [p. 62]. Reticence seems the norm among these characters, yet they express themselves in other ways. What nonverbal forms of communication do they use? What are the reach and limits of each? What are the perils and possibilities?

12. Is there a particular political view or ideology at work in A Thousand Acres? If so, what is it? Does viewing the novel through the lens of feminism, for example, limit or enlarge it? What do you see as the novelist's responsibility vis-a-vis politics? Does this work fall closer to agenda or inquiry?

13. "The first novel I ever knew was my family," writes Ms. Smiley in the afterword to Family: American Writers Remember Their Own (David McKay Co., 1997). "We had every necessary element, from the wealth of incident both domestic and historical, to the large cast of characters. We had geographical sweep and the requisite, for an American novel, adventure in the West." How can A Thousand Acres be interpreted as a meditation on family? How does the novel shed light on the dark corners of family life? How are the Cooks both anomalous to and representative of the average American family? What explains their tragic dissolution? What could have prevented it?

14. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a story that is told almost entirely in the past tense? How does this affect your interpretation of the novel?

15. Ginny is stilled by the disturbing thought that her own "endurance might be a pleasant fiction allowed [her] by others who've really faced facts" [p. 90]. Is it? Do you construe her story, i.e., the novel, as flight from a difficult reality or a means of confronting it? Why?

16. During a game of Monopoly, Jess describes Harold as someone who is "cannier and smarter than he lets on," then suggests that real freedom exists in "the slippage between what he looks like and what he is" [p. 109]. How does the relationship between appearance and reality drive the novel's action in terms of the meaning and direction of its characters' lives? What kind of importance does Jane Smiley assign to this relationship?

17. In what reads like a muted epiphany, Ginny considers the constant weight and exhaustion she felt in the months after her mother's death and then realizes that one reaches a point where "relief is good enough" [p. 198]. Is this remark an expression of resignation or true acceptance?

18. In a candid conversation with Rose, Ginny voices her inability to understand her father's abuse despite Rose's insistence that the matter is a simple case of "I want, I take, I do." Ginny says, "I can't believe it's that simple," to which Rose responds: "If you probe and probe and try to understand, it just holds you back" [p. 212]. What does this exchange reveal about the limitations of reason? About the possibility or impossibility of true catharsis? What options exist when the rational is exhausted?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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