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A Thousand Acres

by Jane Smiley

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
5,4841221,406 (3.71)368
A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare's King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.… (more)
  1. 80
    King Lear 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
    Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (sturlington)
  4. 00
    The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner (kjgormley)
    kjgormley: They are both King Lear retellings.
  5. 01
    We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (AlisonY)
    AlisonY: Similarities in terms of relationships that breakdown between families. Both are like watching a car crash in slow motion.
  6. 01
    1606 : William Shakespeare and the year of Lear by James Shapiro (amarie)
    amarie: Insight into King Lear source and everything else happening that year.
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English (118)  French (2)  Swedish (1)  All languages (121)
Showing 1-5 of 118 (next | show all)
I cam elate to reading this, so completely forgot it was a modern rewriting if King Lear. Consequently, I was surprised and disappointed when I saw where it was heading. I had expected something more along the lines of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, so those of you who have read that book can understand my disappointment. I also felt the writing was a bit choppy. Maybe she planned the, "I said..., then she said...., then I said..." I like writing that makes you forget it's writing. This didn't. ( )
  GiGiGo | Feb 5, 2021 |
There are two ways to look at this novel - as a King Lear reinterpretation set in 1979 Iowa or as a novel of rural Iowa. Both will be correct - and both will be incomplete. It is the masterful mix of the two that makes this novel what it is.

In the spring of 1979, the patriarch of the Cook family in Zebulon County, Iowa, decides to split his farm between his 3 daughters. The decision comes as a surprise -- he had been a farmer all his life and stepping away is not what anyone expected. Except that one of them, his youngest, does not show enough enthusiasm so is cut out and leaves for her lawyer career (it is 1979, invasion won't happen - the battles when they come will be in court). In case you had ever read King Lear, you already know where this one is going... or can go. Smiley does not change the main fabric of the play... but she shifts it.

The second family drama is also in full play - being born out of wedlock is not such a big deal anymore so the son is a draft-dodger instead.

Shakespeare gave us the "external viewer" viewpoint; Smiley gives the oldest daughter, Ginny, the speaker part. And that changes things - partially because now we may be dealing with unreliable narrator and partially because Goneril was never given a chance to explain herself. But that shift also means that we see the underside of the play - the good son is almost just a shadow because the 2 older sisters rarely have anything to do with him.

The novel follows the plot of the play faithfully... which initially worried me - because it almost sounded like a recipe for a predictable plotline. But instead it helped - if you knew what was coming, you were always looking into things thinking on how they tie into it; if you did not know (because you never read King Lear), some of the turns may come as a shock.

But when you remove the veneer of King Lear, you find another novel under it - the novel of the changing times of 1979 in rural America when the farmers were facing the changes in the world. Smiley writes this novel with as much mastery as she does the overlaying story - with all the nitty gritty details (get yourself access to wikipedia if you had not read about farming before -- a lot of the descriptions are extremely detailed but they are done by a farmer's daughter who is herself a farmer.

And as a third layer is the back story of Zebulon county and the Cook family - which is the story of the people that made Iowa and its neighboring states and how American farming came to be what it was.

There is a lot of personal heartbreak in this novel - on all 3 levels of the text and there are awful things that happen and that had happened. The evil sisters of the play turn into the victims here (how much they are and how much of it is the narrator is open to interpretation) and the formerly good characters appear to be either vindictive or just shadows. Old secrets also resurface - some of them so disturbing that it makes you wonder if another play's line about things being rotten should not apply here. The sexual tension of the play is also here - as it cannot not be - and unlike the bawdiness of Shakespeare, it is also explored a lot more carefully.

The end is expected - everything dies. Not literally this time (although enough people do die) - but a way of a life is dead nevertheless and the people still standing are different people.

It is a hard novel to read in some parts - some of them because of the farming narrative, some of them because of the pure awfulness of the past of some of the characters. And it is not a happy story - for anyone. But then... the dying of a way of life never is. ( )
3 vote AnnieMod | Jan 25, 2021 |
A very vivid and well-written book showcasing a rural farming community in Iowa. I did not really want to give it four stars as I could have faced this better as history or sociology than as fiction. I hope it was well researched and based in truth as the picture given showed abuse of all kinds as normal and supported by the community through the isolation of each family. The wider community certainly existed but serving only to assist the already powerful and suppress the human rights of all other individuals. ( )
  Ma_Washigeri | Jan 23, 2021 |
My first novel by Jane Smiley. While I recognize that she created A Thousand Acres mid-way through her career and therefore it was by no means an early work, I found her to be an accomplished craftsman. The characters well well-drawn. In fact, I have found that when the characters become real to me, I talk to them in my head, express my frustrations with their behavior and decisions, occasionally cuss at them. That was all true with A Thousand Acres.

I enjoyed how the plot often progressed due to how different characters perceived the same events differently; so true at times in real life. My wife is a farmer's daughter from Nebraska and while she did not choose the lifestyle of Ginny and Rose, in fact she consciously left that life behind, I have had the opportunity through her family and friends to catch glimpses into that life. Although Iowa is an adopted home for Jane Smiley, she seems to represent that life accurately and honestly from what I can tell.

Despite the enjoyment that I received from reading this novel, I am not drawn to read more of Jane Smiley's novels. Probably the primary reason is there is nothing about her writing style that particularly attracts me. I also tend to enjoy reading about events and worlds that are less familiar to me. Something this mainstream tends to bore me after a short period unless there is something extra to keep me engaged. ( )
  afkendrick | Oct 24, 2020 |
Well styled family saga that is a faithful reinterpretation / reimagination of King Lear. I will need to come back to finish as I only made it 3/4 of the way through by book club ( )
  albertgoldfain | Sep 26, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 118 (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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The body repeats the landscape. They are the source of each other and create each other. We were marked by the seasonal body of earth, by the terrible migrations of people, by the swift turn of a century, verging on change never before experienced on this greening planet.

-- Meridel Le Sueur, "The Ancient People and the Newly Come"
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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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A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare's King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

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