a thousand acres - book cover - penguin random house

On Our Bookshelves — A Thousand Acres

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NOVEL: A Thousand Acres

AUTHOR: Jane Smiley

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1991

REVIEW:

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I really like when contemporary authors take on the classics.  It doesn’t always work, of course, but there are a lot of tales worth retelling, and it’s worth looking at them from different angles.  Here, Jane Smiley brings the King Lear story to an Iowa farm in the 1970s.  (Of course, Shakespeare himself didn’t invent the story out of whole cloth–he combined old legends and folk tales, and gave his version a decidedly unhappy ending.)  

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The patriarch bequeathing his property to his daughters here is Larry Cook.  His elder two daughters, Ginny (Goneral) and Rose (Regan), accept their inheritance, and the youngest, Caroline (Cordelia), refuses.  In the source material, Goneral and Regan are villains, Lear a flawed hero, and Cordelia an innocent victim, but in A Thousand Acres, told through Ginny’s perspective, things are considerably more complicated.  

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As in King Lear, the relationships quickly, and seemingly inevitably, dissolve into dysfunction and violence.  But here, long buried secrets are uncovered, damaging to all. And Ginny isn’t one-dimensionally evil like her Shakespearean counterpart–she’s doing her best to do her duty to her family and her community, while suffering greatly due to her toxic, foolish, stubborn father, as well as the toxicity of the land itself, poisoned by chemicals, which has made her infertile. Smiley takes on big themes here: feminism, gender roles, appearances vs. reality, passivity vs. action, the safety of conformity vs. the danger of honesty.  She makes this story eminently readable, she makes us care about these characters, and she makes us fear the consequences of the denial of hard truths, and the dark currents stirring beneath what appeared at first to be a happy and stable family. 

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It’s a bleak story, to be sure: the destruction of a family, of a way of life, of the wealth built up for generations.  It is extremely well done, although a bit difficult to read, especially as Ginny and the rest of her family become more and more unhinged. For its insight, psychological depth, and sheer cleverness with its Shakespearean parallels, it is, nevertheless, worth your time.  

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image – Partial Book Cover – Courtesy of Penguin Random House

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a thousand acres - book cover - penguin random house - full

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