This powerful twentieth-century reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear centers on a wealthy Iowa farmer who decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. Ambitiously conceived and stunningly written, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride—and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.
About the Author
Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Golden Age, the concluding volume of The Last Hundred Years trilogy. She is also the author of five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.
Date of Birth:September 26, 1949
Place of Birth:Los Angeles, California
Education:B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978
Read an Excerpt
At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road. Cabot Street Road was really just another country blacktop, except that five miles west it ran into and out of the town of Cabot. On the western edge of Cabot, it became Zebulon County Scenic Highway, and ran for three miles along the curve of the Zebulon River, before the river turned south and the Scenic continued west into Pike. The T intersection of CR 686 perched on a little rise, a rise nearly as imperceptible as the bump in the center of an inexpensive plate.
From that bump, the earth was unquestionably flat, the sky unquestionably domed, and it seemed to me when I was a child in school, learning about Columbus, that in spite of what my teacher said, ancient cultures might have been onto something. No globe or map fully convinced me that Zebulon County was not the center of the universe. Certainly, Zebulon County, where the earth was flat, was one spot where a sphere (a seed, a rubber ball, a ballbearing) must come to perfect rest and once at rest must send a taproot downward into the ten-foot-thick topsoil.
Because the intersection was on this tiny rise, you could see our buildings, a mile distant, at the southern edge of the farm. A mile to the east, you could see three silos that marked the northeastern corner, and if you raked your gaze from the silos to the house and barn, then back again, you would take in the immensity of the piece of land my father owned, six hundred forty acres, a whole section, paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth.
If you looked west from the intersection, you saw no sign of anything remotely scenic in the distance. That was because the Zebulon River had cut down through topsoil and limestone, and made its pretty course a valley below the level of the surrounding farmlands. Nor, except at night, did you see any sign of Cabot. You saw only this, two sets of farm buildings surrounded by fields. In the nearer set lived the Ericsons, who had daughters the ages of my sister Rose and myself, and in the farther set lived the Clarks, whose sons, Loren and Jess, were in grammar school when we were in junior high. Harold Clark was my father's best friend. He had five hundred acres and no mortgage. The Ericsons had three hundred seventy acres and a mortgage.
Acreage and financing were facts as basic as the name and gender in Zebulon County. Harold Clark and my father used to argue at our kitchen table about who should get the Ericson land when they finally lost their mortgage. I was aware of this whenever I played with Ruthie Ericson, whenever my mother, my sister Rose, and I went over to help can garden produce, whenever Mrs. Ericson brought over some pies or doughnuts, whenever my father loaned Mr. Ericson a tool, whenever we ate Sunday dinner in the Ericson's kitchen. I recognized the justice of Harold Clark's opinion that the Ericson' land was on his side of the road, but even so, I thought it should be us. For one thing, Dinah Ericson's bedroom had a window seat in the closet that I coveted. For another, I thought it appropriate and desirable that the great circle of the flat earth spreading out from the T intersection of County Road 686 and Cabot Street be ours. A thousand acres. It was that simple.
It was 1951 and I was eight when I saw the farm and the future in this way. That was the year my father bought his first car, a Buick sedan with prickly gray velvet seats, so rounded and slick that it was easy to slide off the backseat into the footwell when we went over a stiff bump or around a sharp corner. That was also the year my sister Caroline was born, which was undoubtedly the reason my father bought the car. The Ericson Children and the Clark children continued to ride in the back of the farm pickup, but the Cook children kicked their toes against a front seat and stared out the back windows, nicely protected from the dust. The car was the exact measure of six hundred forty acres compared to three hundred or five hundred.
In spite of the price of gasoline, we took a lot of rides that year, something farmers rarely do, and my father never again did after Caroline was born. For me, it was a pleasure like a secret hoard of coinsRose, whom I adored, sitting against me in the hot musty velvet luxury of the car's interior, the click of the gravel on its undercarriage, the sensation of the car swimming in the rutted road, the farms passing every minute, reduced from vastness to insignificance by our speed; the unaccustomed sense of leisure; most important, though, the reassuring note of my father's and mother's voices commenting on what they sawhe on the progress of the yearly work and the condition of the animals in the pastures, she on the look and size of the house and garden, the colors of the buildings. Their tones of voice were unhurried and self-confident, complacent with the knowledge that the work at our place was farther along, the buildings at our place more imposing and better cared for. When I think of them now, I think how they had probably seen nearly as little of the world as I had by that time. But when I listened to their duet then, I nestled into the certainty of the way, through the repeated comparisons, our farm and our lives seemed secure and good.
Reading Group Guide
PULITZER PRIZE WINNER
National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
“Brilliant. . . . absorbing. . . . A thrilling work of art.” —Chicago Sun-Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of A Thousand Acres, the extraordinary novel that established Jane Smiley as one of America’s greatest writers.
1. How does the symbiotic relationship between person and place addressed in Ms. Smiley’s choice of epigraph play itself out in the novel? How does setting shape character and vice versa? Which seems to have the upper hand? How is Zebulon County itself a major character in A Thousand Acres?
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Ginny’s narration? Is she able to maintain clarity and candor throughout her chronicling of events? What gets in the way? Is she as forthcoming in portraying herself as she is in discussing others? Why or why not? How would the novel differ if told from the perspective of Rose, Caroline, Jess, or Larry?
3. At the outset of the novel, Ginny confesses that retrospection has not revealed too much about the drama that unfolded when her father decided to hand over the farm to Rose and her and leave out Caroline: “I’ve thought over every moment of that party time and time again, sifting for pointers, signals, ways of knowing how to do things differently from the way they got done. There were no clues” [p. 13]. To what extent does the story that she then tells undermine this claim? What remains a mystery despite her scrutiny?
4. What are the most tragic elements of A Thousand Acres? Which of these elements are rooted in the exercise of an individual’s will, and which seem attributable to something beyond the scope of human volition? Where does the novel ultimately situate itself in the enduring fate v. free will debate?
5. What do you see as Smiley’s debt to Shakespeare’s King Lear? Where do the two works part ways? What provides A Thousand Acres with its autonomy despite its borrowed plot and characters?
6. Which of the issues explored in A Thousand Acres are unique to rural life in America? Which resonate regardless of geography? What does the novel reveal about variations and consistencies in the so-called American character?
7. What are a few of the guises in which passion appears in A Thousand Acres? What seems to lie at the root of each guise? Which do the most damage? Why do some characters yield to a desire for authority, acreage, etc., while others resist such temptations? Is there greater freedom in following passion or in checking it? What does the novel teach us about the nature of passion, restraint, and indulgence?
8. The interior lives of Caroline as well as Larry remain relatively unexamined compared to those of Rose and Ginny, their spouses, and Jess. What is the dramatic and thematic significance of keeping these characters in the shadows?
9. Contemplating her father’s momentous decision, Ginny marvels at its apparent rashness. “He decided to change his whole life on Wednesday!” she exclaims. “Objectively, this is an absurdity” [p. 34]. Her remark points to the struggle against the whims of chance that appears throughout A Thousand Acres. How does the deliberate adherence to daily routine help the characters to weather the vicissitudes of the natural world and the inconsistency of human nature? What kind of solace and safety, if any, do seasonal chores and rituals provide?
10. Discuss the myriad ways that motherhood—and fatherhood—are weighed in the novel. How does Ginny’s ineluctable desire to give birth shape her view of her present and past? What meaning does she derive from the many surrogate-maternal roles she plays? In what ways is her mother’s long absence a constant presence?
11. “Our bond had a peculiar fertility that I was wise enough to appreciate, and also, perhaps, wise enough to appreciate in silence,” Ginny says. “Rose wouldn’t have stood for any sentimentality” [p. 62]. Reticence seems the norm among these characters, yet they express themselves in other ways. What nonverbal forms of communication do they use? What are the reach and limits of each? What are the perils and possibilities?
12. Is there a particular political view or ideology at work in A Thousand Acres? If so, what is it? Does viewing the novel through the lens of feminism, for example, limit or enlarge it? What do you see as the novelist’s responsibility vis-a-vis politics? Does this work fall closer to agenda or inquiry?
13. “The first novel I ever knew was my family,” writes Ms. Smiley in the afterword to Family: American Writers Remember Their Own (David McKay Co., 1997). “We had every necessary element, from the wealth of incident both domestic and historical, to the large cast of characters. We had geographical sweep and the requisite, for an American novel, adventure in the West.” How can A Thousand Acres be interpreted as a meditation on family? How does the novel shed light on the dark corners of family life? How are the Cooks both anomalous to and representative of the average American family? What explains their tragic dissolution? What could have prevented it?
14. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a story that is told almost entirely in the past tense? How does this affect your interpretation of the novel?
15. Ginny is stilled by the disturbing thought that her own “endurance might be a pleasant fiction allowed [her] by others who’ve really faced facts” [p. 90]. Is it? Do you construe her story, i.e., the novel, as flight from a difficult reality or a means of confronting it? Why?
16. During a game of Monopoly, Jess describes Harold as someone who is “cannier and smarter than he lets on,” then suggests that real freedom exists in “the slippage between what he looks like and what he is” [p. 109]. How does the relationship between appearance and reality drive the novel’s action in terms of the meaning and direction of its characters’ lives? What kind of importance does Jane Smiley assign to this relationship?
17. In what reads like a muted epiphany, Ginny considers the constant weight and exhaustion she felt in the months after her mother’s death and then realizes that one reaches a point where “relief is good enough” [p. 198]. Is this remark an expression of resignation or true acceptance?
18. In a candid conversation with Rose, Ginny voices her inability to understand her father’s abuse despite Rose’s insistence that the matter is a simple case of “I want, I take, I do.” Ginny says, “I can’t believe it’s that simple,” to which Rose responds: “If you probe and probe and try to understand, it just holds you back” [p. 212]. What does this exchange reveal about the limitations of reason? About the possibility or impossibility of true catharsis? What options exist when the rational is exhausted?