“A Thousand Acres”
What is a farmer?
A farmer is a man who feeds the world.
What is a farmer’s first duty?
To grow more food.
What is a farmer’s second duty?
To buy more land.
Why does a society value appearances, secrets, and hard work over basic human rights? And, what does it say about a society that condemns a victim for speaking out against a perpetrator for unspeakable crimes? These are the questions Jane Smiley seems to be asking in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres. Published in 1991, A Thousand Acres refers to that magic number of acreage that most midwest farmers ascribe to own – a thousand acres of rich, fertile Iowa farmland. It’s the number that sets one farmer apart from another, especially if the land has been handed down from generation to generation and is unencumbered by a mortgage.
For three generations, the Cook family has farmed land in northern Iowa accumulating one thousand acres by 1979. 68-year old Larry Cook raised three daughters: Ginny (36), Rose (34), and Caroline (28) after his wife died in 1957, and now wants to pass the farm onto the next generation. But, after a disagreement with his youngest daughter, Larry decides to cut her out and transfers the farm to his two oldest daughters and their husbands. This transaction divides the family and eventually leads to dissension within the community whose members stand all too ready to take sides and judge.
Often compared to King Lear which depicts a man’s slow descent into madness after giving his kingdom to two daughters while cutting off a third daughter, A Thousand Acres takes the values and directives of a mid-western farming community:
- Work hard;
- Respect your elders;
- Don’t tell your neighbors your business;
- Luck is something you make for yourself;
- Less said about that, the better; and
- Keep private things private.
and shows the heavy price the perpetrators, victims, and those who sit in judgment pay when truth, honesty, and fairness are deemed secondary to appearances, tradition, and secrecy.
The 371-page novel, divided into six “books” totaling 45 chapters, A Thousand Acres is told from the perspective of Ginny, Larry’s oldest daughter who stayed on the farm along with Ty, her husband of 17 years. Rose, the second eldest and her husband, Pete have also stayed and dutifully worked on the farm while Caroline left to pursue law school and a life in Des Moines. Each sister remembers her childhood differently and with perspectives that often conflict, interactions seethe with resentment, petty jealousies, and avoidance, which divides the sisters and ultimately serves Larry’s interests.
Although the real story is the family, the center of the story is farm life, which hasn’t changed much in the past few decades keeping the story as fresh as it was when the book was originally published nearly 25 years ago. Life on a farm is not a 9-5 job or even a 9-9 job, but an all-encompassing 24-hour responsibility that revolves around labor, machinery and food. Labor and machinery work the land (tiling, cultivating, sowing, fertilizing, harvesting, loading, transporting) to produce food. Weather, luck, fluctuating prices, and government regulations will affect all these processes but a well maintained farm is the ultimate measure of a man’s worth. As the author so eloquently writes:
A farmer looks like himself, when he goes to the café, but he also looks like his farm, which everyone has passed on the way into town. What his farm looks like boils down to questions of character….A good farmer will have a good farm. A poor-looking farm diagrams the farmer’s personal failures.
And, it is this blind faith in appearances that underlies a simple truth: “People keep secrets when other people don’t want to hear the truth.” Some families cannot tolerate things beyond conflict and loss which leaves the both the author and reader to wonder “how we judge those who have hurt us when they have shown no remorse or even understanding.” It’s a question as relevant today as a thousand years ago.