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, Harold Clark. Jess has not been home since he fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, and his return is an event in the small community. His brother, Loren, has remained at home with his father on the family farm. Ginny is immediately drawn to Jess, who has lived the unsettled life of a drifter and returned with unfamiliar habits and ideas. The two eventually become lovers, as Ginny begins to grow dissatisfied with Ty.
Soon after his land has been divided...
(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 Canada to evade the draft during the Vietnam War. During the hog roast, Larry announces that he is turning the family farm into a corporation, with shares going to each of the daughters and their husbands. In fact, he is turning over control of the property—a farm of now one thousand acres—to the younger generation.
Everyone seems to give their assent to Larry’s idea, everyone except Caroline. Larry angrily tells her that she will therefore not receive a share. Caroline leaves the party and drives away without another word.
Ginny anxiously tries to make peace during the next few days, mainly by arguing with Caroline to change her mind. Soon the family gathers to sign the papers, with Marv Carson, from the bank, and Ken Lasalle, the family lawyer, present. Caroline drives up and approaches the screen door, but Larry gets to the door first and slams it in Caroline’s face. Now alienated from the family, she stays away, working at her law practice in Mason City and commuting to New York frequently. When she marries Frank Rasmussen, another lawyer, the family receives only an announcement, and no invitations to the wedding.
Ginny’s husband, Ty, is happy about the arrangement. He borrows money from Marv’s bank to set up a large hog-confinement operation, which involves putting up new buildings and buying equipment and breeding sows. The farm is already the most successful farm in Zebulon County, and among the largest.
Larry no longer works on the farm and begins some erratic behavior that worries Rose and Ginny. When Ginny, who continues to cook for him, tries to reason with him...
(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 had reservations: this is not the whole story.”
By setting her revisionist King Lear in the Midwest, she again brings together medieval notions of the rise and fall of kings with American assumptions of prosperity as the just reward for lifelong diligence and skill. The wheel of fortune thus meets the American Dream to produce a forceful indictment of the hubris underscoring American privilege. Larry’s willful acquisition of land (in some cases through the business failures of neighbors) updates the frontier mission to conquer the wilderness and nature itself, a mission furthered into the twentieth century by aggressive farming methods meant to manage and exploit nature’s force. Patriarchal egotism prompts a domination of children and landscape against which the narrative’s violent backlash occurs. Ginny’s retrospective commentary expresses her desire to learn exactly how the spring of tragic machinery in her family’s history has been released, as well as what role she herself has played in the ensuing disaster.
Larry’s decision about the farm elicits mixed responses from the extended family. For questioning his wisdom in the matter, Caroline is abruptly cut out of the picture, while her sisters’ husbands leap at...
(The entire section is 1111 words.)