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Friday, June 08, 2007

The fascination of this Pulitzer prize-winning novel lies in watching something elaborate and well-made move toward destruction, like seeing a wedding cake slide to the floor, or breaking the stays of a spider web one by one. You watch in spite of yourself. In this case, a family and a farm, inextricably linked, fall into ruin by a slow and improbable process. Yet each tiny step that solidifies their lost legacy is completely plausible. This story of an Iowa family is superbly and subtly written.

At the opening of the novel, Ginny Cook Smith goes contentedly about her duties of cooking, keeping house, and occasionally helping with the fieldwork on her father’s farm, worked jointly by her father, her husband, and her brother-in-law. She has some regrets, like being childless and having to cope with her irascible father, but in general, life is good. Ginny’s husband Ty is a kind and patient man, and her sister Rose, who lives next door, is her best friend and constant companion.

Then, on a seeming whim, her father decides to sign over the farm to Ginny, her two sisters, and their husbands. That event marks the strange beginning of her father’s sudden hostility toward her and Ty’s vague suspicion, doubt, and disapproval. Almost overnight, the emotional landscape shifts, and ugly resentments, both reasonable and unreasonable, begin to poison relationships and the family’s ability to successfully farm their land.

I found it remarkable that by the end of the novel, Smiley has managed to completely rearrange the picture of this family, so that even though you’re dealing with the same people, the same circumstances, and the same facts, your idea about them is completely different. It’s not unlike one of those alternate endings of a movie, where the filmmakers trot you seamlessly through the same scenes loaded with gestures and speeches full of double meanings, and arrive at an entirely different outcome. Only it’s the past that changes in this book – not the actual events but the understanding of them; not the lives of the characters, but the knowledge of their motives. And in this story, the motives of the key players are uniformly self-serving. No one escapes unscathed from their own depravity.

As with any narrative that deals closely with crops and soil, land and water, I was drawn to the language of agriculture, the wonder and precision of farming. Smiley is successful in evoking the pragmatic and unsentimental atmosphere of a conventional Iowa farm. If the book had been set in a major city, I probably wouldn’t have connected with or cared about the characters.

Title:A Thousand Acres
Author:Jane Smiley
Date published:1991
Number of pages:371
Notes:Another read of Book Lust


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