A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992.
The story is told by Ginny, the eldest daughter of an Iowa farmer during the late 1970s. Ginny and her husband Ty, live and work on Ginny’s father’s farm, along with Ginny’s sister Rose, her husband Pete and their two daughters. Ginny and Rose’s other sister, Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.
Ginny and Rose brought Caroline up after their mother died of cancer.
The trouble starts when Jess Clark, the black sheep son of a neighbour returned home to the Clark farm after spending years in Canada avoiding the Vietnam war.
At a barbecue to celebrate Jess’s return, Larry Cook, Ginny and Rose’s father, impulsively decides to sign the farm over to Ginny and Rose, cutting Caroline out of her inheritance. Up until this time, Ty and Pete have farmed the Cook farm way Larry has always farmed, growing crops. In fact, everything in this family has been done the way Larry wanted. Larry is a tyrant and Ginny and Rose are victims, although in different ways. Ginny takes the easiest course of action in order to avoid conflict, while Rose is a fighter. Caroline’s way of managing her father was different again, she had always teased and cajoled her father as well as standing up to him, which brought her a level of respect which Ginny and Rose never received from their father.
After the farm was signed over, Ginny, Ty, Rose and Peter borrowed money to go into hog farming.
The families spend a lot of time socialising with Jess, who adds something to all of their lives. Their conversations are more interesting, their gatherings are funnier and Ginny and Rose particularly enjoy his company. Ginny, who has been struggling with years of childlessness, has an affair with Jess. After their affair ends, Jess has an affair with Rose, who has spent the last year being treated for breast cancer.
As the story evolves, plenty of secrets emerge, many of which are hidden from their community. After Larry, whose behaviour has become increasingly erratic, goes to Caroline and starts a law suit to have the farm returned to him, the neighbours also judge Ginny and Rose.
The story is likened to Shakespeare’s King Lear, which I have never read. While A Thousand Acres is a good book, I couldn’t truthfully say I enjoyed it. The story has madness, incest and rapes, bullying, cruelty and violence, affairs, suicide and attempted murder, serious illness and sadness at every turn, not to mention the tribulations of farming, which can go bad very quickly.
A month after reading this book, the standout lesson for me is, don’t drink the water from the well if chemicals are being used on the crops. Don’t have affairs with the neighbours either. Or hang around the farm trying to make your father happy, particularly if he is as mad as a cut snake. Move on. Life doesn’t have to be terrible.