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A Thousand Acres ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1992)

or "Shoeless King Lear Comes to Iowa"

During my long and decidedly checkered academic career there were pretty few bright spots.  One of the select handful was a remarkably perceptive essay for Mr. David's 11th grade English class called Hamlet, MacBeth and Bozack.  In this paper, written at an Islander game that Dryfoos's parents took us to, I contrasted Hamlet and MacBeth, arguing that MacBeth is not a tragedy because the MacBeths are such awful people that their fall is simply not tragic (Bozack was merely the referee at the game).  I am reminded of this theory because A Thousand Acres is intended to be an American tragedy, a reenactment of King Lear set in the nation's heartland.  But the people in the book are all just so execrable that there is nothing tragic about their eventual fates.  Hell, you end up hoping horrible things will happen to them.  Why couldn't Perry Smith & Dick Hickcock have visited this farmhouse?

The other problem with the book is the mod politics of it.  Naturally, there's a feminist spin put on the story, that she can be forgiven,  and, predictably,  the clan takes up organic farming.  But the real annoyance is the decision to work in a storyline about how the patriarch molested his daughters.   It strikes me that this goes beyond the typical attempt to stack the moral decks, a failure of confidence that is all too common these days, and actually comes close to turning the book into a kind of self parody.  After all, what modern women's novel would be complete without a trendy "women as victims, men as bastards" subplot for the Oprah audience?  It's like a recipe: take one perfectly serviceable tragedy, mix in rape, incest and recovered memory and suddenly every shut-in and book club member in America will be clamoring for her copy.  It works, but it degrades the fiction.

Smiley is a terrific writer and one lesson of this novel is that if you're going to imitate someone, you may as well crib from the best, she pilfered a great, time tested plot and we're swept along by simple curiosity at how boldly she's going to borrow from it.  But between the schticky political elements and the unsympathetic characters, there's just too much here to dislike.


Grade: (C-)


Jane Smiley Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jane Smiley
    -SELF INTERVIEW: Jane Smiley: 'I couldn't finish Philip Roth's American Pastoral. I tossed it': The Pulitzer winner on her love of Trollope, her passion for cooking and the Ian McEwan novel she feels is overrated (Jane Smiley, 2/05/21, The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: Jane Smiley (The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY:   21st century family values: Infidelity, divorce, stepchildren... is marriage doomed in the 21st century, asks leading American writer Jane Smiley. Or could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? (Jane Smiley, Books Unlimited)
    -REVIEW: A Thousand Acres By Jane Smiley (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -[J.D.'s Place] [Book Club] A Thousand Acres (includes link to King Lear)
    -ESSAY: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (Scott C. Holstad, Department of English  California State University, Long Beach)
    -INTERVIEW: Take a wild ride with Jane Smiley's spirited new heroine  (ELLEN KANNER Book Page)
    -INTERVIEW: The Adventures of Jane Smiley (The Atlantic)
    -INTERVIEW: Smiley says Moo U. doesn't really exist, really (Elisabeth Sherwin)
    -INTERVIEW:  Jane Smiley's Riskfulness (Nicholas A. Basbanes, LitKit)
    -INTERVIEW: The Missouri Review:  An Interview With Jane Smiley by Kay Bonetti.
    -SHORT STORIES: from The Atlantic
           The Blinding Light of the Mind  (December 1983)
           Lily (July 1984)
               Long Distance (January 1987)
    -ESSAY: An immature wish to be charmed A novelist speculates on why voters turn to people like Clinton (JANE SMILEY, US News & World)
    -REVIEW: of At Paradise Gate by Jane Smiley (Polly Rance, The Richmond Review)