Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley 

Decades ago I opened A Thousand Acres, realized an affair was on the way, closed the book and took it right back to the library. The Iowa women I've encountered don't behave like that and I was offended. This year, I read further, kept King Lear in mind and became engrossed in just a few chapters.

The King Lear of the novel is a cantankerous, even evil, man who has gathered his thousand acres by profiteering off of others. He is able to work this enormous spread by using two of his daughters and their spouses, all but the Cordelia of the piece, who has escaped the farm and her father's evil by dint of the protection of the sisters who raised her. Cordelia, who has made her own life as a lawyer, is clueless as her father's mind unravels and the children he has subjugated are caught in an impossible web of circumstances as his deteriorating judgment and behavior first embarrass them, then turn the entire community and Cordelia against them.

All this happens during the 80s when farm bankruptcy was an epidemic and CAFO's were getting started. It was fascinating to read a book that is so authentic in it's portrayal of the daily routines of Iowans - the canning (or rather jarring) of beans and preserves, the work ethic, the well water poisoned by chemicals considered essential to farming. Only the baking of bread is missing. I am sure Ginny and Rose baked bread as well as cleaning, canning and pitching in with the heavier farm work when needed.

I set the book aside the first time because it seemed inauthentic. I read to the end this time because of it's authenticity, the realizations Ginny came to about her oldest relationships, the basic goodness and decency that trapped her and made it impossible to extricate herself from the inexorable destruction of not only the farm that had been her home, but the relationships that had surrounded and bolstered her. In the end, her basic decency means that she chooses to remain silent, remain the villain to her Cordelia, believing it was better to allow her to remain ignorant than to shatter the illusions, destroy what we mistakenly think of as innocence.

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