A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

What an incredible book; it is definitely going down on my list of best books for 2024. I knew by the end of the first chapter that I was going to love it, and I did partly because of the writing, but also because I understand how some inheritances can cause friction in families.

Three sisters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline were raised on a farm, 1000 acres, by their father after their mother had died. Many years later at a family gathering, their father announced that he was giving the farm over to his daughters which Rose and Ginny accepted but Caroline asked to think about it. In a fit of pique, their father cut her out of the will and handed the farm over to the two sisters and their husbands, both of whom worked on it. And, it is at this point that you know things are going to go downhill.

If this plot sounds familiar to you, it is because Smiley has hung her plot on King Lear. Lear leaves his kingdom to the two daughters who flatter him through their behaviour and inability to stand up to him, cutting out of his inheritance his third daughter who was the only one that truly loved him. This all happened as he slowly sank into madness.

Ginny and Rose had lives that must at times have felt overwhelming. They cleaned and cooked in their own houses and then went over to their father’s to do his house work and also helped on the farm. The cleaning was not just a bit of dusting but full-scale taking down of curtains to wash and starch them and moving furniture to hoover underneath (?!). In reality, this obsessive cleaning was a way to restore order in their lives which were really in chaos. They both had marriages that weren’t working, Rose had breast cancer and Ginny had had five miscarriages. The story is told through Ginny’s eyes and she is drawn as someone who always wants to give people the benefit of the doubt, to restore harmony, whilst Rose is a fighter, standing up for herself and her children and facing reality. This difference in attitude also leads to differing memories of their father.

Rose remembers that he beat them and sexually abused them whilst Ginny has pushed these memories from her mind. Eventually, through a series of every day events and domestic chores, Ginny recalls these events and realises the damage her father has caused. Caroline, who was protected from her father by her sisters, refuses to contenance anything anything such as this and has a relationship with her father that is oblivious. Hinted at in the book is the idea that her father may also have been a victim of sexual abuse.

What is portrayed vividly is the difference between appearances and reality. Everything that happened to the family Ginny viewed through the filter of wondering what the neighbours would think. A ‘good’ farm was one that was well-maintained and tidy with everyone judged by this standard, with wives judged by their ability to keep the farm out of the house. There were people who pretended to be friends of the family but really weren’t with the pastor being one of these people. There were the missing emotions and sex in their marriages which appeared on the surface to be working but weren’t and in the end there was the gap between Rose and Ginny over a man, Jess, who like a prodigal son had returned home after being away for over a dceade. Both women slept with him but Rose was clear about his behaviours where Ginny wasn’t. To Ginny, he was a man who wanted to farm differently, who noticed her and for whom sex was more than the creation of a child. To Rose he was a man obsessed with eating the right things, meditating at the exact rise of the sun and running – as if farm work weren’t physical enough.

Their father was seen in the community as one of the best farmer (neat and tidy), wise and dependable but of course the daughters knew the reality behind closed doors. This is what happens when families keep secrets. The reality ends up being so different from the appearance and there were a lot of secrets in this family.

Smiley’s writing is wonderful: precise, descriptive and structured for effect. There are several shocking events towards the end of the book with each one having a lengthy build up only for the event to be over and done with in one short paragraph, leaving you slightly winded. Her descriptions of place and community make me think that she must have lived a rural life herself.

This is a book about families and relationships, about the damage secrets can do, about order and chaos, about inheritance and fairness but what Smiley has slyly done is inject a theme of eco-awareness into the book.

At the start, the descriptions of the place are grounding and almost idyllic. There is a long section where we read about the land and the swamp that it is but, as in so much of America, the land was drained by manually digging trenches and laying tiles and pipes to take the water down to the well. It was these trenches that allowed the family to farm the land but also allowed herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers to run with the water into the well and poison all who drank the water causing cancer and miscarriages. It is a very Shakespearean idea to prosper and kill from the same event.

I am no the lookout for more of Smiley’s work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *