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A Thousand Acres: A Novel by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres: A Novel (original 1991; edition 2003)

by Jane Smiley

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4,693901,010 (3.71)277
Title:A Thousand Acres: A Novel
Authors:Jane Smiley
Info:Anchor (2003), Edition: Reprint, Paperback
Collections:Your library, Prize-winners
Tags:Pulitzer prize, Family drama, Small town USA, Fiction

Work details

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991)

  1. 80
    King Lear (BBC Radio Presents) by William Shakespeare (browner56)
    browner56: The original and a modern retelling of a powerful story involving some very strong women
  2. 10
    Plainsong by Kent Haruf (lyzadanger)
    lyzadanger: Similar treatment of broad-open landscapes and middle American family values.
  3. 00
    1606 : William Shakespeare and the year of Lear by James Shapiro (amarie)
    amarie: Insight into King Lear source and everything else happening that year.
  4. 00
    The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner (kjgormley)
    kjgormley: They are both King Lear retellings.

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Showing 1-5 of 86 (next | show all)
This is an amazing character-driven story. I remember faintly the decent movie adaptation twenty years ago, but I was much more ready to read it now with greater understanding of life in general and of King Lear especially. But back in Iowa, A Thousand Acres is a family tragedy that I think is probably familiar for so many on American farms. Families have not been able to compete and thrive with the old ways, which rears its head perfectly in the time period of this novel.

As for old Lear, I've now seen the play several times and liked getting to know the blustery old man who learns a very hard lesson. What was fascinating and vital for this retelling was how the author I believe turned almost every character opposite to their play counterpart's traditional interpretation. The good daughter turns out to be petty and naive, the bad daughters are beset by terrible circumstances but work so hard to overcome it all. Even the other families switch places as the moral supporter who is hatefully blinded instead is terrible and calculating even before just an accident.

There is resolution, but like any tragedy, the "stage" is littered with dead bodies and dying dreams. ( )
  amarie | Jun 23, 2016 |
As many reviewers have said: this story starts slow. But I felt that every word was necessary for the incisive portrait Smiley painted of each of the characters. She captures the inner workings of close-mouthed, emotionally repressed farm people so perfectly you feel like you are inside of their skins. There is a subtle genius in the telling of the mundane details of farm life and the way the narrator uses it to hide from her own feelings.

This is a retelling of King Lear, so I was familiar with the basic plot, but I was still anxious to see what would happen next when events started spiraling out of control. I was grouchy every time I had to put it down and couldn’t wait to get back to the story. I look forward to seeing the Jessica Lange movie that was made in the 90s.
( )
  memccauley6 | May 3, 2016 |
An excellent read. I felt very caught up in this family tale. A powerful message about a community's misguided perception of an apparently successful, God-fearing, hardworking farmer. The reader bears witness to the disintegration of the family and the forced sale of the thousand acres, accumulated over three generations.
Another book which reveals the dark side of the American Dream. ( )
  HelenBaker | Apr 14, 2016 |
I was always aware, I think, of the water in the soil, the way it travels from particle to particle, molecules adhering, clustering, evaporating, heating, cooling, freezing, rising upward to the surface and fogging the cool air or sinking downward, dissolving this nutrient and that, quick in everything it does, endlessly working and flowing, a river sometimes, a lake sometimes. When I was very young, I imagined it ready at any time to rise and cover the earth again, except for the tile lines. Prairie settlers always saw a sea or an ocean of grass, could never think of any other metaphor, since most of them had lately seen the Atlantic. The Davises did find a shimmering sheet punctuated by cattails and sweet flag. The grass is gone, now, and the marshes, “the big wet prairie,” but the sea is still beneath our feet, and we walk on it.

Jane Smiley translated the timeless elements of Shakespeare's King Lear to a Midwestern farm family. In many respects, Smiley's adaptation improves on Shakespeare's Lear. Larry Cook owns one of the most productive farms in Iowa's Zebulon County – one thousand acres resulting from the consolidation of several adjoining acreages. The widower Cook farms with the assistance of two sons-in-law, the husbands of two of his three daughters. Cook's sudden decision to incorporate the farm and cede control to his daughters and sons-in-law is the first in a chain of events that leads to tragedy. The return of draft dodger Jess Clark, prodigal son of Cook's neighbor, Harold Clark, becomes a catalyst for growing feelings of discontent in Cook's eldest daughter, Ginny, the first-person narrator. As sisters Ginny and Rose and their husbands extend themselves beyond their means, the family rift grows, and their neighbors in the small farming community choose sides.

The Midwest farm crisis was an inspired choice as the modern setting for this tragedy. This was a period when many multi-generation family farms were lost to corporations. Many smaller tragedies took place throughout the Midwest during this time period. Smiley's novel carries an authenticity that will resonate with readers with ties to the Midwest and its farmers. Highly recommended. ( )
  cbl_tn | Mar 19, 2016 |
[A Thousand Acres], Jane Smiley's 1992 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, re-enacts [The Tragedy of King Lear] in an Iowa farming community. For decades, Larry Cook farmed land he inherited from his father and grandfather. An ambitious man, he expanded his farm through shrewd acquisitions and investments. Before his wife died, he fathered three daughters, two of whom (Ginny and Rose) married men (Ty and Pete) who now do the actual farming. The third and youngest daughter (Caroline) left home for college and never really returned for more than day visits; she's now a lawyer in Des Moines, a several hour drive from the farm. In setting the scene, Ginny, the narrator, explains the vastness of the farm:

…[O]n this tiny rise, you could see our buildings, a mile distant, at the southern edge of the farm. A mile to the east, you could see three silos that marked the northeastern corner, and if you raked your gaze from the silos to the house and barn, then back again, you would take in the immensity of the piece of land my father owned, six hundred forty acres, a whole section, paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth.

Never a pleasant man, Larry is becoming more taciturn and remote as he ages, chosing not involve himself in conversation nor answer questions directed to him. He's demanding, insisting, for example, that someone have his breakfast on his table at 6 a.m., no delays, no substitutions. His temper is always cocked and ready to blow. His sudden and implacable decision to transfer ownership of his farm to his two older daughters triggers internecine warfare amongst himself, his daughters and their husbands, and even some neighbors. If you know King Lear, you know the story is an inevitable, slow descent, injuring everyone swept into it. But this King Lear is told from a daughter's perspective, from a woman's viewpoint.

At a family picnic, Larry lays out his plan:

He glanced at me, then at Caroline, and, looking at her all the while, he said, "We're going to form this corporation, Ginny, and you girls are all going to have shares, then we're going to build this new Slurrystore, and maybe a Harvestore, too, and enlarge the hog operation." He looked at me. "You girls and Ty and Pete and Frank [Caroline's fiance] are going to run the show. You'll each have a third part in the corporation. What do you think?"
…In spite of that inner clang, I tried to sound agreeable. "It's a good idea."
Rose said, "It's a great idea."
Caroline said, "I don't know."
…My father glared at her. In the sudden light of the porch, there was no way to signal her to shut up, just shut up, he'd had too much to drink. He said, "You don't want it, my girl, you're out. It's as simple as that." Then he pushed himself up from his chair and lumbered past me down the porch steps and into the darkness.

Several days later, with the legal papers prepared, the family again gathers, this time with attorney Ken LaSalle. Larry is impatient; "Okay, Kenny, let's get to it. Now's the time." The attorney wants to wait a bit. Ginny sees Caroline coming up onto the porch, "composing herself to be conciliatory." She starts to open the door. "But my father stepped around me and took the door in his hand and slammed it shut in her face, and then he whirled Ken around with a hand on his arm, and said, 'Now.' We went into the dining room."

With the transfer completed, work begins to transform and expand an existing dairy barn for a big hog operation. Tension is up, not simply between Larry and his daughters, but between husbands and wives, and between sisters. Then Larry has a tantrum mostly directed at Ginny.

He leaned his face toward mine. "You don't have to drive me around any more, or cook the goddamned breakfast or clean the goddamned house." His voiced modulated into a scream. "Or tell me what I can do and what I can't do. You barren whore! I know all about you, you slut. You've been creeping here and there all your life, making up to this one and that one. But you're not really a woman, are you? I don't know what you are, just a bitch, is all, just a dried-up whore bitch."

In the face of this withering tirade, Ginny flashes back to her childhood, to an incident triggered by her loss of a shoe.

…[I]t was like he turned to fire right there. He came for me and started spanking me with the flat of his hand, on the rear and the thighs. I backed up till I got between the range and the window, and I could hear Mommy saying, "Larry! Larry! This is crazy!" He turned to her and said, "You on her side?"
Mommy said, "No, but—"
"Then you tell her to come out from behind there. There's only one side here, and you'd better be on it."

Her attention is recalled to Larry's current outburst.

…"How can you treat your father like this? I flattered you when I called you a bitch! What do you want to reduce me to? I'll stop this building! I'll get the land back! I'll throw you whores off this place. You'll learn what it means to treat your father like this. I curse you! You'll never have children, Ginny, you haven't got a hope. And your children [speaking to Rose] are going to laugh when you die!"

He storms off into a deluge, a downpour so intense he wanders aimlessly for more than an hour before a neighbor finds him and takes him into his house. Thereafter, Larry stays with the neighbor, refusing to stay in the house he's lived in most of his life. He has the lawyer file papers to revoke the land transfer. The bank halts the construction. In short order he's being ushered about by Caroline. Larry's moving to Des Moines is the word on the streets of all the Zebulon County towns. His application for revocation is pending.

During this lull, Ginny is in a local clothing shop when she sees Larry, escorted by Caroline, approaching the door. She grabs a couple of blouses and ducks into the changing booth. They're shopping for socks and underwear, when Larry sits and wheedles his daughter to sit beside him. Ginny hears every word of their chat, but remains hidden until they leave. Back at the farm, Ginny goes straight to Rose:

I fell into an armchair. I said, "I was in Roberta's and Daddy and Caroline came in. I can't tell you the tone of voice he used to her. All soft and affectionate, but with something underneath that I can't describe. I thought I was going to faint."
…Rose gazed down at me with utter seriousness, her eyes deep and dark, her mouth carved from marble. She said, "Say it."
"Say what?"
"Say it."
"It happened like you said. I realized it when I was making the bed…in my old room. I lay down on the bed, and I remembered."

I think this book is a hell of an achievement. Smiley has produced a fresh, female-oriented take on an old story. She's enriched it with memorable, recognizable characters, pouring out the full range of emotion such a story provokes. I guess that now I must read [King Lear] to see if it measures up.
1 vote weird_O | Mar 15, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 86 (next | show all)
Does this sound familiar?

At the opening of Jane Smiley's latest novel, "A Thousand Acres," the narrator, a woman named Virginia Cook Smith, describes the farm in Zebulon County, Iowa, that she and her two younger sisters, Rose and Caroline, have grown up on: "Paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth."

And then comes the shock of recognition. In 1979, the three sisters' father, Laurence (Larry) Cook, decides to form a corporation out of his farm holdings and give each of his daughters a third of it. What do they think of the plan? "It's a good idea," says the oldest, who is called Ginny. "It's a great idea," says the second daughter, Rose. "I don't know," says the youngest, Caroline, who is a lawyer.

"You don't want it, my girl, you're out," says Larry to Caroline. "It's as simple as that." So the farm is divided into two instead of three, with Ginny and Rose to take turns looking after Larry. And a tragedy of ingratitude, madness and generational conflict begins. . . .
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To Steve, as simple as that
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At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0449907481, Paperback)

Aging 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 cutthroat lenders. In this winner of the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Smiley captures the essence of such a life with stark, painful detail.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:57:53 -0400)

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Dark truths and long-suppressed emotions come to the surface in 1979 when a successful Iowa farmer decides to cut one of his daughters out of his will.

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