"Acreage and financing were facts as basic as name and gender in Zebulon County," writes Jane Smiley in her new novel, which explores the lives of a farming family. One thousand acres of unmortgaged, unencumbered, fertile soil makes this Iowa farm the most elite in the county.
As the story reveals the characters' relationships with each other and with nature, the reader examines them as tenuous, ruthless and unreliable, following unfailingly the maxim of survival of the fittest.
The book traces the lives of three daughters whose world changes when their elderly father unexpectedly retires and turns over the family farm to them. If you have read King Lear, you will recognize the scenario of a father's daughters ending up in a snarl.
The eldest, Ginny, is an amicable, accommodating woman whose world has never been challenged outside the isolated shelter of the family holdings. The middle sister, Rose, is a caustic, outspoken woman who feels this inheritance is the just reward for her years of laboring on the land and playing housekeeper to their father after their mother dies at an early age. The youngest daughter is Caroline, who has escaped this environment for a career as an attorney in New York City.
As the legal corporation is formed, dividing the land three ways, Caroline expresses her doubts and bruises her father's ego. Here, Ginny says, "I saw that Caroline had mistakend what we were talking about, and spoken as a laywer 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."
The novel addresses a variety of family-related issues: dealing objectively with one's aging parents, redefining relationships with siblings in adulthood, adultery, the horror of memries, incest and its subsequent effects. Smiley's simple, straightforward writing makes these serious subjects easy to read, yet amid the simplicity, A Thousand Acres will speak to readers on many levels.