“Most issues on a farm return to the issue of keeping up appearances. Farmers extrapolate quickly from the farm to the farmer. A farmer looks like himself, when he goes to the café, but he also looks like his farm, which everyone has passed on the way into town”
It took me a while, sure, but I managed to claw my way through Jane Smiley’s 1992 Pulitzer-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. It was a grueling two weeks that I spent in its pages, and I still haven’t recovered enough yet to pick up another novel. Hell, it’s taken me this long just to get around to writing about it.
It’s not even that I didn’t like the book—I did; quite a bit, actually.
Jane Smiley has a writing style, though influenced by a lot of other original writers, that is all her own. She takes up the darkness and the mystery that shrouds Southern Gothic and weaves it into the patchwork quilt of Midwestern Americana. She is equal parts Georgia O’Keefe and Willa Cather; Robert Penn Warren and Marilynne Robinson (particularly Gilead and Home).
Jane Smiley has been unofficially designated the standard-bearer for Midwestern literature and her magnum opus, A Thousand Acres, has been called The Great Midwestern Novel. It certainly is a masterpiece, and it certainly portrays the Midwest in a way that very few novels (that I can think of, anyway) have ever dared to. It’s the perfect sort-of combination of the movie Fargo, the Bruce Springsteen album Nebraska, and Shakespeare’s King Lear.
In fact, A Thousand Acres just so happens to be an adaptation of King Lear. In King Lear, of course, the titled character descends into madness after foolishly disposing of his estate between two of his three daughters based on their flattery, bringing tragic consequences for all. The connections are pretty obvious, but I think that A Thousand Acres is even more based on the legend of Leir of Britain.
Unlike most kings of his day, Leir produced no male heir to his throne but instead had three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, whom he favored most. As he neared his death, he planned to divide the kingdom among his three daughters and their husbands.Goneril and Regan flattered their father and were married off to the Duke of Albany and Duke of Cornwall at the advice of the nobles, each being promised a third of the kingdom to inherit. Cordelia, however, refused to flatter her father, feeling that he should not need special assurances of her love, and was given no land to rule. Eventually, Leir descends into the throes of insanity as he fears that his daughters are plotting against him.
Larry Cook (Leir, Lear, Larry) is an aging farmer who decides to incorporate his farm, handing complete and joint ownership to his three daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, respectively). When the youngest daughter (Caroline/Coredelia) objects, she is removed from the agreement. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and unearths long-suppressed emotions.
All of this I really enjoyed—there’s not much I love reading more than a well-executed adaptation, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare. I even took a stab at doing an adaptation of Hamlet, once upon a time—back when I was blonde, believe it or not.
What I struggled with, though, was the density of this story. Everything about it is so irrepressibly heavy.
As the plot progresses, and Larry’s relationship with his two oldest daughters severs more and more, Smiley reveals that, when they were teenagers, he had sexual relations with both of them. “That incestuous, adulterate beast,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. That, alone, with my unfortunate history in this realm, was hard enough to get through; inasmuch as I’ve “gotten over” the abuses of my childhood, it’s still very difficult for me to mentally revisit those dark corners of my memory.
On top of that, there’s all of the familial infighting, Larry’s spiraling into mental instability, Ginny’s marital unhappiness, her inability to have a child, the extramarital relationships, the bitter sibling rivalries… At one point, Ginny even attempts to murder Rose by poisoning her dinner!
This novel is dark and demented; depraved even. Because of that, it is incredibly difficult to get through. It’s not a portrait of a mildly dysfunctional or comically quirky family in the Midwest, with balding dad smoking a pipe in the living room and plump mom showing a big lipstick-stained toothy grin from behind the steam of a freshly baked apple pie—no, this family is the epitome of a veritable dystopia.