It is not necessary to be familiar with King Lear in order to read Smiley’s novel as an absorbing study in family tensions on a Midwestern farm during a time—a decade before the book’s publication—of economic crisis in American agriculture. For those who know Shakespeare, the most striking departure in Smiley’s book is her decision to present the events through the eyes of one of the sisters. Ginny becomes an Iowa Goneril, but because she is telling the story and because of the way in which she tells it, she emerges as more sympathetic than Shakespeare’s cruel, ungrateful daughter. A Thousand Acres is a woman’s book—written by a woman, narrated by a woman, and presenting a woman’s perspective on a powerful story known as the tragedy of men. The collapse of an agricultural empire and of an Iowa family are recounted by a woman who rejects the abusive values represented by both.
In remarks that she delivered after receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award for A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley described her novel as “a complex argument against a certain kind of farming and land use, that is leading us towards an environmental disaster, the destruction of the lives of people and of the moral life of our country.” A Thousand Acres is set in the recent past, during a severe slump, particularly in the Midwest in which Smiley—a native of Los Angeles who grew up in St. Louis, studied at the University of Iowa, and taught at Iowa State University—was living.
A Thousand Acres is not merely a mirror of harsh conditions in contemporary Iowa or an exercise in nostalgia for the family farms that were being displaced. It is a critique of patriarchal arrogance, the way that one stubborn man dominates and...
(The entire section is 730 words.)