Monday, May 16, 2011

A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley

At the end of my last post, I wondered how well Jane Smiley could adapt Shakespeare's King Lear to the prairie farms of Iowa. Brilliantly, as it turns out. Lear was a king by birth. Lawrence Cook, the patriarch of A Thousand Acres, is a king by dint of having successfully farmed the title acreage throughout his life, buying additional lots from neighbouring farms when their owners failed and went under. Ms. Smiley's farm kingdom has its own grandeur, and its ruling family does not want for pride.  This is a monumental novel.  It won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Lawrence Cook's three daughters are also named to alliterate with Lear's:  Ginny, who narrates, Rose and Caroline.  The plot roughly follows that of the play:  the aging father decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. The youngest, Caroline, now a Des Moines lawyer, expresses doubt about the idea, while the two older daughters, both married to men who are working the farm alongside Lawrence, agree to it.  Having handed over his power, Lawrence almost immediately regrets it -- not because his daughters and sons-in-law proceed to mismanage the farm, but because he has relinquished control, and with it, his will to live. The Cook family follows the Shakespearean path to destruction, and the farm is lost as surely as Lear's kingdom.  

For readers who wonder how they will ever muster enthusiasm for Iowa farmland, they have only to give themselves up to Jane Smiley's prose:
A thousand acres 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.
She paints the Iowan farmers with equal attention to detail, and they are very detailed people, especially when it involves finance. Neighbourly, yes of course, but always aware of who owes how much to the bank:
Acreage and financing were facts as basic as 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 Ericsons' kitchen.  

Ginny and her sisters grew up knowing the family's history on the land, beginning with her English great-grandfather, who had been conned into buying a large plot of Iowa swamp.  Undeterred, he set out to drain it, laying lines of tile and digging cisterns.  Three generations later, she was living on the largest and most prosperous farm in Zebulon County, her father ensuring that the girls never forget how it came about:
I in my Sunday dress and hat, driving in the Buick to church, was a beneficiary of this grand effort, someone who would always have a floor to walk on. However much these acres looked like a gift of nature, or of God, they were not. We went to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks....
We might as well have had a catechism: 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. What are the signs of a good farm? Clean fields, neatly painted buildings, breakfast at six, no debts, no standing water. How will you know a good farmer when you meet him? He will not ask you for any favors. 

Then comes the day when Larry Cook decides to divide the farm, and the tragedy commences. Although she feels "an inner clang", Ginny goes along with the idea.  Rose is enthusiastic. Caroline, the lawyer, simply expresses uncertainty, and Lawrence/Lear banishes Caroline/Cordelia from his sight.  Ginny reflects later:
I saw that maybe Caroline had mistaken what we were talking about, and spoken as a lawyer when she should have spoken as a daughter. On the other hand, perhaps she hadn't mistaken anything at all, and had simply spoken as a woman rather than as a daughter. That was something, I realized in a flash, that Rose and I were pretty careful never to do.  

When reading King Lear, I felt some sympathy for Cordelia, little for Goneril and Regan, and almost none for Lear.  Yes, he'd given up his power, but he was old and mad and tyrannical.  It's all but impossible to feel sympathy for Larry Cook. His tyranny wrought years of abuse on his daughters, all unseen to the neighbours who respect his farming acumen.  Smiley's sympathies are clearly with Ginny and Rose. Caroline is the outsider, the one who turned her back on the farm, returning only to assist Larry -- completely mad at this point -- in an abortive attempt to take it back.

Holding A Thousand Acres up for comparison to King Lear accentuates the sense of tragedy:  The tragedy of family, when toxic secrets finally boil over, when trust evaporates, when years of cruelty and repression come home to roost.  The tragedy of farming, when financial peril is around every corner, when natural disasters loom, when chemical fertilizers and pesticides and mono-culture practice robs the soil of its fertility, when family farms give way to conglomerates.  The tragedy of being human, whether in Lear's Britain or Larry's Iowa.

I was startled to read that Jane Smiley grew up in Los Angeles, because I'd assumed that she was as much a product of the mid-eastern farmland as Ginny and Rose.  I figured she had Iowa in her blood.  She did live and teach there from 1981 to 1996, and the place obviously affected her profoundly; she must have absorbed it through her very pores to have written about it with such intimacy. At times, this book also reminded me of John Steinbeck's East of Eden.  Steinbeck was writing about his own home territory in the hills of California, though.  It makes Jane Smiley's feat even more impressive.

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