Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres
From A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley
Open quote 

Because the intersection was on 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."

Recently I read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a retelling of Hamlet set in 20th century rural Wisconsin. Coincidentally I just finished reading A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear set in 20th century rural Iowa.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

A Thousand Acres tells the story of a multi-generational family farm in Iowa, its patriarch and his three daughters, and the troubles that are triggered when he rashly decides to retire and split his farm among his daughters. Yes, this is King Lear on the Iowa prairie (the patriarch is named "Larry"). The family is portrayed as competent, stolid and close, but when the farm is divided, signs of dysfunctional crop up almost immediately. As King Lear is Shakespearean tragedy, you know that the dysfunction can only get worse. And it does.

The story is told from the point of view of oldest daughter Ginny. At first she and second daughter Rose appear to be the loyal, dutiful children while youngest daughter Carolyn, "daddy's favorite," is the one who has a falling out with her father and leaves for the big city (Des Moines). The father is unloving and unlovable. But as the story unfolds, the dark sides of Rose and, eventually Ginny, begin to appear, until by the end, it's hard for the reader to feel much sympathy for any of the characters.

Again, this is based on Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespeare's hero, Lear, was more "sinned against than sinning" but in Smiley's version, Larry's sins are not ameliorated by any sinning done by his daughters. Tragedies turn on a great man's fatal flaws. In Larry, the fatal flaws are manifest. It's the greatness of character that's lacking. Maybe a more problematic deviation from Shakespeare, by making Ginny the central character and narrator of the story, Larry tends to be a secondary character in his own tragedy.

There are a lot of deviations from Shakespeare that tend to irritate rather than improve on Shakespeare. But you can read the book without being at all familiar with Shakespeare. In fact, you might actually enjoy it more. It's a stereotypical woman's book, heavy on emotion and relationships, and offers a lot to ponder and discuss in that regard. Perhaps that's why it was awarded the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. If that's your usual genre, this novel won't disappoint.

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