A Thousand Acres. Jane Smiley.

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. Knopf, New York 1991. Electronic version for Kindle. F; 10/15.

This is a wonderful novel that crept up on me, starting out, it seemed, slow and awkward, but ending up deeply satisfying. Like The Hours, one of my all-time favourites, it’s built on the plot and character framework of classic established literature (Shakespeare’s King Lear in this case), and has also been made into a movie I haven’t seen but which (in this case) has been universally critically dumped on. Written in 1991, A Thousand Acres appears to focus on a search for new values to replace old ones that are rotten to the core, but it somehow engaged me through its flat dark tone and its struggle in asking myself what really matters.

In the early going I kept being pulled up short by awkward word-choices and ambiguous references that to me a competent author should be avoiding. Then that issue seemed to disappear as characters developed depth and dimension, Larry the uncompromising father’s drinking, Rose the sister’s anger, and Ginny the strait-laced narrator’s extramarital affair. Through this added complexity there was never any of the distracting obscurity of, for example, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so there was no reason to suspect that wool was being pulled over my eyes to hide an unconvincing plot and character development. Everything was set out clearly like produce at a farm market. It was all there. No need to waste energy trying to figure out what’s going on and being unable to.

But a serious introspective story like this one can get distracting just by being depressing. Dark, difficult truth forces dark difficult reflection as characters credibly suffer over irredeemable mistakes involving loved ones’ disease, death, missed opportunities, etc.

When incest suddenly appeared, I was bothered by the same kind of annoyance I felt in The Hare with Amber Eyes: this is a hijack attempt. I’m being dared not to react with outrage at misogyny, the Holocaust, athletic head injuries, homophobia, abuse of trust. Well I hate all those things too, but I’m not impressed with an author needing to use them to build dramatic effect.

But eventually none of that mattered. Through all the details of farm life, terrible rows, deaths, awkward plain truth, and tragedy of misunderstanding, a massive overwhelming morality emerges. It’s an exigency-enforced decency-centred ideology desperate to control, or avoid, the farm’s terrible human and animal realities. The woman obsessing with farmhouse cleanliness, the man focusing on machinery and crops. And the question never asked but always implied: what’s driving the decisions I make between right and wrong? It makes a big difference, but still in the end I’m not sure.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, life expectancy was around 35 years. Infant mortality, childhood death from infection, and fatal injury were daily events. In Lear, Goneril poisons Regan, and of course in classic Shakespearian tragic style she dies along with pretty well everybody else. PLOT ALERT Here, Ginny pours down the drain the jar of hemlock root poisoned sausage she’s carefully placed in the path of her sister. They are both ruined: the farm and their love gone forever. But they stay alive. Maybe in today’s world instead of dying we just lose hope. END PLOT ALERT.

And the dramatic-effect hijacking by incest, that so bothered me, is redeemed at the very end:

I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he probably chose never to remember – the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house late at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness. This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all others.

What’s the shard? The very darkness? The old man’s fog of self and the unthinkable urge? Either way that’s all that’s finally left for her and what she values above everything else. Goodness, who needs poison? 9.3/9.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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