A Thousand Acres
is the story of
updated for a modern audience hungry for an understanding of the malady that ripped apart Lear's family. Unlike
A Thousand Acres
has one of the "bad" daughters as its narrator, which provides insight into the bitter conflict that undoes the family in the end. Those familiar with Shakespeare's play may be bothered by the idea that such stately patriarch could unknowingly produce such selfish schemers as Regan and Goneril, and Smiley's novel gives us the back story. In this novel, set in Iowa farm country, Larry Cook's two eldest daughters (Ginny and Rose for Goneril and Regan) have been waiting on him hand and foot since the death of their mother, cooking every meal and washing every stitch of clothing as their husbands (Ty and Pete for Albany and Cornwall) dutifully assist the demanding Larry in the daily operations of the farm. His youngest daughter (Caroline for Cordelia) escapes, at the urging and through the support of her sisters, to become a successful lawyer. Caroline marries another lawyer and lives a sophisticated life in Des Moines. Smiley closely follows Shakespeare's plot lines with the kind of details that fill this novel to bursting, and provide an intense glimpse into the private life of a family whose farm represents a small kingdom surrounded by smaller kingdoms, all green with envy and eagerly awaiting their opportunity to judge as the pillar of the community begins to crumble into decline.
Larry Cook is Lear in the modern sense: As a leader of his community, he has proven himself to be wise and has maintained his position and the respect of his neighbors until he decides to assume the role of advisor and retire as his children assume his position. He is the owner of a farm maintained and improved through his family's hard work, and his land has grown to an impressive thousand acres through his clever manipulation of the less able farmers around him. His retirement is hastily planned and executed, and it is his pride that prompts him to disinherit Caroline, who simply states that she is not sure that his decision to incorporate the farm is a good idea. Incensed that she is not grateful and agreeable, as Ginny and Rose and their husbands are, he cuts her out of his will and refuses to speak to or about her. After the signing of the documents, Ginny's husband Ty works harder than ever to improve the farm and embarks upon drastic changes that are rather risky, and require them to borrow a great deal of money, something that Larry Cook had been unwilling to do. Ginny and Rose continue to take care of Larry until his drunken driving, wasteful spending, and general erratic behavior prompt them to attempt to set limits on his behavior. Angry and incoherent, Larry runs out into a storm as Ginny, Rose, and Pete restrain themselves as his insults grow ever more mean-spirited and cruel. Like Lear, Larry curses Ginny with infertility and calls a sickness down upon Rose, who has recently won a battle with breast cancer. Only Ty, Ginny's husband, attempts to keep Larry inside during the storm, but he is unsuccessful.
Larry wanders to the farm of his good friend Harold Clarke (Gloucester), who takes him in and begins a smear campaign in their small community against Ginny and Rose for their betrayal of their father. In a parallel sub-plot, Harold's son Jess (Edmund) has returned to the fold after a thirteen-year absence due to Jess's flight to Canada during the Vietnam War. Jess has been wandering, and wants to take up organic farming on his father's land. Jess's brother Loren is an exact copy of Harold, and would farm exactly as his dad did. Jess sleeps first with Ginny and then with Rose, and his alliance with Rose infuriates Ginny, who mixes up some poison sausage for her sister. Larry has taken refuge with his friend Harold and initiates discussion with Caroline about how his farm has been taken from him. Pete, angry with Larry for years of high-handed treatment, sabotages a piece of farm equipment Larry had been using, but it is Harold who uses it next, and it is Harold who is blinded. Caroline files suit against the incorporation of the farm, seeking to declare that her sisters and their husbands are not farming wisely and that the farm should revert back to Larry, but their case is thrown out. Ultimately, Caroline takes care of Larry as he grows more and more disconnected with reality. Ty attempts to save the farm under the burden of debt and the inability to work it after the death of Rose's husband Pete, but is unable to do so after Ginny leaves him to find another life as a waitress in a small town. Rose takes over after Ty leaves, but succumbs to cancer in the end and dies owing more for the improvements on the land than it is worth; Ginny and Caroline must pay off the debt after they sell the farm.
Smiley's characters are fuller and more developed than Shakespeare's, with more information by which to judge. Rather than a greedy daughter, Ginny is agreeable to her father, and signs the incorporation agreement to please him. Even her attempts to control his behavior are well-intentioned, since his drinking and driving pose an obvious threat to himself and those around him. Ginny is led first by her father, then her husband, and then Jess as her lover, but throughout this, her relationship with Rose is the most powerful. It is Rose that reminds Ginny of their childhood, and it is Rose that awakens Ginny's anger with her father and with Rose herself. Eventually, we learn that Larry began molesting Ginny and Rose after his wife died, and that they acquiesced partly in order to protect Caroline from him. Ginny's memories of this were buried, but Rose's were not, and Rose is openly hateful of him throughout the novel. Caroline never understands why Rose is so mean to her father, and blames Rose for being vicious. Ginny elects not to tell Caroline the truth, and after Rose's death allows Caroline to continue to think of their father as a man betrayed by his daughters. Ginny regrets her jealousy about Pete, and removes the poison sausage from Rose's pantry before anyone is hurt. Ginny's infertility is probably caused by the chemicals used on the crops, and Rose's cancer may also be linked to modern farming methods. Their way of life - the seemingly pure and simple life of the farmer - is filled with dangerous chemicals, deadly machinery, precise rules of behavior, and old grudges that live forever.
Unlike classical tragedy, which concerns itself with the fall of a man in high place to a lower position through some flaw or weakness, in modern tragedy we see how the pressures of life or the world warp and twist the average man into a shadow of what he used to be or may have been. He falls, but from a lower position than the classical or Shakespearean tragic man. Larry Cook is our
, twisted by his family's fever to farm economically and aggressively, by his emotional detachment from his ancestors and his progeny, and by his inability to see himself as a man guilty of the sexual abuse of his daughters: rather than face up to his behavior, he goes mad. His daughters are not evil and greedy beings, but thinking and feeling products of his inadequate parenting and outright abuse. They can be manipulated, but they are much more complex than Lear's daughters, for Ginny and Rose both have legitimate grievances and an inability to prevent Larry from making his mistakes. When his errors are disastrous, like incorporating the farm before he was ready to give up his leadership, driving drunk, and angrily walking into a dangerous thunderstorm, they pay for them too. Larry's neighbors censure Ginny and Rose for not preventing these disasters. Their weapons against their father are mainly wheedling and flattery, not enough to prevent him from feeling the sting of consequence. Caroline, the "good" daughter, is only good because her sisters have protected her from their father's dark side; Caroline is free to remember a father strong and good, and sisters that were less ambitious and independent. Her career and her freedom are possible because Ginny and Rose made sure that she got the most out of her school experiences and went to college, unlike Ginny, who compliantly married early and moved into a house on the Cook farm, or Rose, who taught elementary school for a while before being brought back to the farm when her husband's music career did not provide the steady income they needed. Why does Caroline stand up for Larry? Because she doesn't know what he is like, and what Ginny and Rose sacrificed for her.