Monday, April 26, 2010

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

I have picked up A Thousand Acres a dozen times, read the back cover, and put the book back on my shelf. Last week for whatever reason when I picked it up again I didn't put it down. I committed myself to reading Smiley's work. I have read Moo and adored it. But life on a rural Iowa farm didn't jump out at me as an engaging locale for a novel (maybe that makes me a snob, I don't know). Was I going to read about them watching the corn grow?

I am SOOOO glad I read A Thousand Acres. It is amazing. A bit dire, maybe, but honest. Around page 150 I realized that all of my cousins needed to read this book. I began to understand my father's upbringing as the son of a patriarchal farmer father. The characters either chafe at the opportunity to prove themselves to the patriarch or they kowtow to his dominant personality and push all their emotional turmoil further down. Whether Iowa or points east, Smiley created an incredibly realistic (yet not at ALL boring) view of farming life.

Around page 250 I reassessed my statement. I still think the overall premise is extremely relevant for anyone with farming ancestors as the family dynamics are genuine. However, I would not want anyone to associate my grandfather too closely with Larry Cook. Demanding, expecting excessive control over his family and his world: yes. Going as far as Larry Cook: I sincerely hope not.

The series of events which continue to build felt oppressive at times but I understood why Smiley kept laying on the destruction. The characters had ignored so much negativity for so long that when the truth came to light everyone recoiled and fell apart. I just discovered that the plot is a modern, rural retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear which could account for the perpetual destructive tendencies of the characters.

One particular aspect which was a small side plot intrigued me. A Thousand Acres was first published in 1991. When Jess Clark returns he has grandiose ideas of farming his inheritance organically. Because of the focus on organic today I enjoyed reading how traditional farmers perceived the idea of organic in the late-1970s (the periodization of the book). Not only did they think Jess was crazy to suggest such a thing, they also dismissed his ideas about chemical run-off in wells affecting pregnancies. Smiley obviously had an "early" and relevant interest in the debates about modern farming.

When all is said and done, I am glad I finally opened A Thousand Acres rather than sidelining it yet again. Five years ago I probably would not have liked the novel very well. But the time and place I'm in right now, it spoke to me.


Dani said...

I really like Jane Smiley. She is great. She lives on a Farm or Ranch and it is interesting to see how she draws from places in her life. I have checked this out twice and not read it either. This may be the push to do that.

g.n.a.t. said...

It's worth it. A lot more than I had feared. She has a great style that keeps you going.