I finished reading Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres exactly two years ago, and I now feel that I have had ample time away from the book to be able to look back on it with discretion and far less emotion than I would have at the original time of completion. I found the book at a charity shop in York, England while on my way to Newcastle, and I was excited to find it published by the same UK company that had published the copy of Smiley's The All True Travels of Lidie Newton that was given to me by my "Literature of the American West" teacher during my final semester in grad school. Matching books!! YAY!
I began to read the book on the train to Newcastle, and immediately fell in love with the language:
"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...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."
A Thousand Acres is about a family farm in Zebulon County, Iowa. Beyond that, it is a remarkable retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear. All the books that I have read by Smiley (all two of them) have been about the prairie. The harshness of the landscape and the constant battle to tame nature may be a bit of an inspiration. She writes about women, and their endeavors in such a climate, always environmental and always political.
If you are not familiar with King Lear, I will sum it up for you. While Hamlet is considered to be Will's greatest play, King Lear is probably his greatest "achievement." SO, it's not really all that funny. It's a lot more tragic. Maybe not as tragic as Hamlet, but probably a lot more relevant. In short, Lear is about the aging and undoing of a king, a man, and a father. King Lear decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. In Smiley's version, it is land (an American's "kingdom" I suppose). However, he requires that his daughters each profess their love for him. His two oldest daughters gladly step forward to make daddy feel good about himself, but the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to make a spectacle, "Nothing, my lord." "Nothing?" "Nothing." "Nothing will come of nothing, speak again." "Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less." And, thus, she makes dad real mad, and he decides to divide his kingdom between his two eldest, because they clearly love him so much more.
Smiley has her Lear (Larry) divide his thousand acres between his three daughters, the youngest of whom (is that right?), Caroline (tee hee), feels doing this is a bad legal move ('cause she's a big ol' lawyer). The story is told from the point of view of one of the eldest, Ginny, and her story is inspired by the fruits of dysfunction.
Shakespeare's Lear, at first glance, is about a crazy old king that likes to talk a lot and is eventually exiled by his mean, selfish daughters. Smiley is not one for surfaces, from my experience. She digs down to the heart of the matter, which is more than I can say for myself upon reading Lear for the first time. I can talk a big game and glibly pronounce the validity of Shakespeare, "We can all totally connect with every subject he writes about, y'all," but I suppose an education at Vassar requires a bit more of a lady. I believe a review I read used the word "illuminates," to describe the actual effect of the work.
I think, and maybe this is just me, that we tend to look at the basics of Shakespeare's work: Romeo and Juliet is all about tragic love, Hamlet is about revenge, A Midsummer Night's Dream is about doing acid, etc...It takes a true scholar/artist to break beneath the surface to find the heart of the truth that Shakespeare's work truly touches on every possible human experience.
I'm not going to summarize the book, or tell you the way it ends. That would be mean. I'm also not going to recommend you read the book unless you have a strong constitution and someone close by that has also read the book when you finish it. That would also be mean. I finished A Thousand Acres over the course of an entire evening in a dorm room in Pilsen, Czech Republic. It was during this time that everything...EVERYTHING...caused me a great deal of anixety, not the least of all being feeling the sunlight come into my room while sitting in bed pouring over a book about the dissolving of a family and an idealism.
A Thousand Acres is an immensely emotional novel. It is a truth to be reckoned with. I had been told by people I didn't even know, that happened to see me reading the book, that it was a book that had an intense effect on them emotionally. I suppose that is part of why I kept reading: to figure out what they meant.
There is no lost love (of a noble nature per se), and there is no build up to an insanely tragic conclusion. Like the reality of life that Shakespeare set out to portray with King Lear, Jane Smiley paints for us a picture of the gradual decay from within that is derived using the metaphor of the poisonous ways we attempt to control the ever changing landscape. Nothing is overtly romantic. Nothing is terribly evil. People hurt each other. People hurt themselves. And everyone will grow old and die. Nothing more. Nothing less.
In the Epilogue, Ginny, our storyteller, is looking at her sister's children, and she observes, "I see in them what I am too close to see in myself, the fusing and mixing of their parents. I see how their inheritance takes place right there, in the shape of their eyes and their glance, the weight of their bodies and their movements, in their intelligence and their thoughts...my inheritance is with me, sitting in my chair...All of it is present now, here; each particle weighs some fraction of the hundred and thirty-six pounds that attaches me to the earth..."
There is nothing that can separate us from our kin.