Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Set on a farm in Iowa, A Thousand Acres draws on William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c.1605) in its story of an aging farmer who decides to divide his land among his three daughters. His decision alters the family’s life forever and forces his oldest daughter, Ginny, the book’s narrator, to confront her past.
The story opens in 1979 in Zebulon County, Iowa, as Larry Cook announces his decision to split his land among his children. Cook’s married daughters and their husbands agree to the plan, but his youngest daughter, Caroline, who has left the farm and is now an attorney, voices her disapproval and is cut out of the arrangement by her father. The plan unfolds quickly, and though Ginny herself has misgivings about it, Cook is a domineering man whose family rarely challenges him.
For Ginny’s husband, Ty Smith, a hardworking man who has treated his father-in-law with respect and patience, the agreement offers a chance to undertake a hog-farming project of which he has long dreamed. Ginny and Ty have been unable to have children—Ginny has suffered five miscarriages, only three of which she has revealed to her husband—yet their marriage is placid, steady, and comfortable. Rose and Pete’s relation is less successful—he drinks and is sometimes abusive—but they have two daughters, Pammy and Linda.
Larry Cook’s decision coincides with the return of Jess Clark, the son of Cook’s neighbor and friend,...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The grandparents of Virginia “Ginny” Cook Smith had settled Zebulon County when the land there was fertile but full of standing water and abundant wildlife. They had used tiles to drain the excess water into cisterns and wells; when the land was cultivated, the ponds, plants, and animal life became marginalized; the fertilizer and chemicals used on the land then drained into the wells and cisterns.
Ginny, along with sisters Rose and Caroline, spend part of their childhood being raised by their father, Larry Cook, after the death of their mother. Larry often beats and sometimes rapes the older girls, Rose and Ginny. The daughters marry young—Ginny at the age of nineteen to Tyler “Ty” Smith, who brings his father’s acreage into the family. By 1979, after a series of miscarriages, Ginny still has no children. Rose also marries at a young age. With her husband, Pete Lewis, they have two daughters, Pammy and Linda. Pete, a frustrated musician who is stuck farming and hates it, gets drunk and breaks Rose’s arm, but he stops harming her even further when she puts him on notice. Rose is diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of thirty-four; Ginny nurses her through the surgery and becomes a loving aunt to Pammy and Linda, sometimes envying Rose for having children and wishing that the girls could come home from boarding school.
In the spring of 1979, their neighbor Harold Clark holds a hog roast to welcome back his son Jess, who went to...
(The entire section is 1263 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
If Bob Miller must come to terms with his desire for control and the damage it wreaks, Larry Cook, the patriarch who sets in motion the tragedy of A Thousand Acres, reflects his opposite number: a man whose stunted interior life crashes in upon him as his family grapples with the emotional devastation he has wrought. The third-generation heir to a homestead begun in 1890 and steadily expanded to become the largest farm in the area, Cook decides suddenly to retire and to form a corporation, with his three daughters and sons-in-law as joint stockholders. Quickly bcoming a best seller, Smiley’s novel secured both popular and critical acclaim; it also netted her the National Book Critics Circle Award and the 1992 Pulitzer Prize.
The obvious parallels to Shakespeare’s King Lear contain an important difference. While the play explores the failure of filial responsibility resulting from its protagonist’s moral blindness, it aligns itself ultimately with the sufferings of Lear and his youngest child, Cordelia; in contrast, Smiley emphasizes the parental betrayal of all three children and tells the tale through the first-person perspective of the eldest, Ginny. (The names of the Cook family principals echo those of the characters in the play: Larry/Lear; Ginny/Goneril; Rose/Regan; Caroline/Cordelia.) As Smiley explains, “I never bought the conventional interpretation that Goneril and Regan were completely evil. Unconsciously at first, I...
(The entire section is 1111 words.)