A Thousand Acres Summary

Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres

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A Thousand Acres Summary

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Published in 1991 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a modernized retelling of the Shakespeare classic tragedy King Lear. While King Lear centers on the eponymous king and his three daughters as they vie for his kingdom (and he decides based on how much they flatter him), A Thousand Acres follows the story of an aging, widowed Iowa farmer, Larry Cook, and his three daughters—Ginny, Rose, and Caroline—as he decides to incorporate his 1000-acre farm and hand over joint ownership to the daughters and their partners. The novel eschews the elder Cook’s point of view in favor of Ginny, the eldest daughter’s.

Ginny’s role as narrator is important in that she is the most neutral of the sisters in the matter. At the same time, it’s important because while she is the oldest (thirty-six at the opening of the novel to Rose’s thirty-four and Caroline’s twenty-eight), she often thinks and acts as if she is the youngest. She is unable to have children after several miscarriages and often acts as the caretaker of the family.

Larry Cook first announces his decision to give the farm to his daughters at a pig roast of a neighbor, Harold Clark, who is celebrating the return (after over a decade) of his prodigal son, Jess. Jess, you learn, as in Canada dodging the draft. At this same party, Harold cook gets drunk and starts bragging about new farm equipment, which causes Larry Cook—also slightly drunk—to reveal his plan to give his farm to his daughters. It’s shortly after this that Caroline is removed from the deal, after Cook feels that her hesitancy about this deal is too much. Jess, it turns out, is a key cog in the machinery that helps Ginny come to a better understanding of the herself, her sister Rose, and the world. After his announcement, Larry Cook begins his descent into madness—one of the key thematic features of the novel. He comes more erratic than usual, his temper flaring more than anyone can remember. He does a variety of other things that cause Ginny and Rose to worry—from buying new kitchen cabinets and leaving them outside to crashing his truck while drunk.

The biggest revelation to come out of the book happens shortly after this, when Rose reveals both her and Ginny were at some point during their teenage years, sexually abused by their father. While Ginny denies this accusation, Rose remains steadfast. It is in the light of this that they discuss the need to keep up appearances, another key theme in the book. Being a small town, the daughters worry that the townsfolk will talk and they want to avoid that.

It’s at a Fourth of July barbecue after this that tensions rise even more, when Larry begins talking about how he thinks that his children are no good and only want to get him out of the way. Harold Cook, too, joins in the yelling, accusing the daughters of brainwashing Jess into wanting the farm to start an organic farm of his own. This generational conflict is a third major theme in the novel.

A few days after the barbecue, Ginny and Rose find out that their father plans to sue them—with the help of Caroline—for control of the farm. The lawyer that meets with Ginny informs them that Larry is suing them under a clause that relates to mismanagement and abuse, so if even the slightest thing is out of place at the farm, he could very well win the farm back. While they seem to be under pressure from the lawsuit, the farm turns a profit and the sisters are able to pay off the debt they were facing earlier than they needed to. This key action results in them winning the suit that their father brought against them.

Shortly after the suit ends, Ginny moves away, signing over her portion of the farm to Rose. She learns later that her father died just days after the suit ended. One day, she gets a call from Rose, saying that her cancer had come back and she needed help from Ginny to take care of her children. After Rose dies, Ginny and Caroline meet at the farm to divide up the remaining assets between them. They get into an argument and Caroline leaves. After this, Ginny auctions off everything from her family.

Not only is the story modeled after King Lear, but many of the names are quite close to those penned by Shakespeare. Larry for example is representative of Lear. Moreover, Ginny replaces Goneril, Rose is Regan, and Caroline is Cordelia. This reinforces the various themes that both Shakespeare and Smiley use in their works.