Book Review: A Thousand Acres

Jane SmileyThis is one of those books that I should have read years ago, I don’t know why I didn’t, and I wish I had. the latest book by Jane Smiley, Some Luck, is the first of a new trilogy and is currently sitting on my Kindle waiting to be read. But first, I felt I should read that book I wish I’d read years ago: A Thousand Acres. You know: the one that won the Pulitzer, the one that mirrors King Lear, etc etc.

The setting is Iowa, remote farmland. The first page took me straight to that wonderful description of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s description of Kansas, more remote farmland. ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.’

Being a farmer’s daughter, I was soon immersed in the detail of the Cook family’s daily life on their Iowa farm ‘out there’: the drainage of the land, spreading manure, moisture levels, the hogs, the purchase of a new tractor, yields, profit and loss.

Smiley had my attention straight away. Overlaid over the groundwork of farming are the daily lives of the family members: Larry, the aging father, and the two daughters, Rose and Ginny and their husbands, who stayed on the farm. A peripheral character is Caroline, the third daughter, the one who got away, now a lawyer, who visits her father but doesn’t interact much with her sisters. Both farming sisters are used to tragedy: Rose is recovering from breast cancer, Ginny has suffered five miscarriages. But they get on with life, because that’s the pragmatic approach to life they were taught.

Then two things happen and everything changes. Out of the blue, Larry says he is leaving the thousand acre farm to Rose and Ginny, nothing to Caroline. And the son of a neighbouring farmer, who had gone to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft, returns. From this point, the family slowly unravels as the traumatic past stories are told alongside the unfolding modern-day traumas, set against the empty Iowa horizon and a neighbourhood where there are no secrets.

I couldn’t put this book down although it is in no way a page-turning thriller. It’s all about the characters: I wanted to know what happened to them in the past as children that turned them into the adults they are now. Is family everything? Will they stay together and keep the thousand acres together? There is a new generation of Cook children, Rose has two daughters. Will the thousand acres be preserved for them to inherit, or will they escape the empty landscape of rural Iowa as Caroline did?

‘A Thousand Acres’ by Jane Smiley [UK: Harper Perennial] Buy now

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