Smiley brings her Midwestern background to many of her works. She never lived on a working farm, but she was reared in St. Louis, Missouri, and absorbed the rural atmosphere. She also taught at Iowa State University at Ames, which she says she used as a model for Moo U only in that both are large land-grant universities.
Moo is a companion piece to her A Thousand Acres (1991), winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics’ Circle Award. A Thousand Acres is based on William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605-1606) and is a tragedy involving incest, madness, and rivalry in a Midwestern family. Smiley conceived Moo, her next book, as a counterpart, presenting the comedic side of Midwestern life.
Moo represents a departure for Smiley, not only because of its lighter tone but also because of its different and broader focus. Earlier works tended to focus on single families or small groups undergoing a single crisis, whereas Moo presents a series of crises faced by a wide cast of characters. Although the setting is Midwestern, the focus is less on traditional Midwestern life than on new elements entering that life. She retains her concern with emotional life and the effects of neglecting emotional needs, but these effects are presented humorously rather than tragically. She also expands her scope to social and institutional life, rather than concentrating on the family.