A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ll be participating in a workshop later this summer taking place at the Iowa State Fair and the World Food Awards. Part of the regional event is to give an understanding of locality and food production, and we’ll be exploring a bit of Iowa farmland. One of the organizers, in an email outlining our itinerary, suggested reading the novel A Thousand Acres as an introduction to rural Iowa farm life. I bent my “affirmative action” summer reading program slightly, considering that I need to read more novels by women as well.
Jane Smiley’s work is horrifying and profound. The book starts innocuously enough. There are three daughters (compared by some to the three daughters of Shakespeare’s King Lear), one of whom– the eldest– is the book’s narrator. Their father is a third-generation farmer on a tract of land that has grown over the years– through luck, diligence, and good sense– to a round thousand acres. The book begins with him deciding to retire and divide the land between his three daughters and their husbands. From this simple and sudden decision, a chain of events are set up in which the family slowly and painfully implodes.
The book was incredibly compelling to read, as painful as it was. It kept getting darker, which surprised me. I hadn’t read any Smiley, so I naively assumed this would be about a family’s love for each other and for their land and perhaps a struggle to preserve it. It was a good deal grimmer than that, though it was indeed about the land in profound and troubling ways. The story wound downward through madness, adultery, despair, and ultimately suicide and attempted murder. Along the way a past of incest and abuse was revealed that had slept beneath the surface like the drainage tiles that made the family’s thousand acres sound and productive land.
One of the things that made the work so compelling was the skill with which Smiley balanced her characters. There was no clear good guys or bad guys. There were only people with their own conflicting and often well-intentioned motivations. Whenever you thought the lines had been drawn fairly distinctly, a new wrinkle made you realize things were more complicated than you imagined. For the first portion of the book, it was easy to relate to the two older daughters and their struggle against their overbearing and increasingly irrational father. As the work progressed though, you started to see aspects of the sisters as well that highlighted their own pride and selfishness.
Throughout it all though, the land was a constant theme. The role of farmwife and farmer was highlighted and examined, as were the ideals of farming at the beginnings of large-scale industrialization, as the novel was set on the eve of the 1980s. Whatever ills their father had been responsible for, there was no denying he had made the land productive and was therefore admired by his peers. But the narrator links his dominance of the land with his abusive dominance of his family powerfully in the novel’s conclusion, a understanding that eventually results in her exile and separation from others who can’t see it in the same way.
There’s also hints of different ways to view farming and food production in the character of Jess, the outsider who wants to introduce organic farming methods but is ultimately ridiculed and rejected by his father. Jess is a weak alternative, futile, and– at this point in history– marginal to the way the farms are moving. Indeed, despite the dissolution of the family, it is the ultimate fate of their land that is perhaps the novel’s true tragedy. As dark as the novel got though, I couldn’t help feeling it actually had a happy ending in that the main character woke up. She had lived her life in a kind of captivity, and even though her ultimate salvation meant the loss of both land and family, she found it.