A Thousand Acres

A Thousand Acres

by Jane Smiley


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This powerful twentieth-century reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear centers on a wealthy Iowa farmer who decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. Ambitiously conceived and stunningly written, A Thousand Acres takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride—and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400033836
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/02/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 86,572
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.84(d)
Lexile: HL930L (what's this?)

About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Golden Age, the concluding volume of The Last Hundred Years trilogy. She is also the author of five works of nonfiction and a series of books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.


Northern California

Date of Birth:

September 26, 1949

Place of Birth:

Los Angeles, California


B.A. in English, Vassar College, 1971; M.A., Iowa University, 1975; M.F.A, 1976; Ph.D., 1978

Read an Excerpt

At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road. Cabot Street Road was really just another country blacktop, except that five miles west it ran into and out of the town of Cabot. On the western edge of Cabot, it became Zebulon County Scenic Highway, and ran for three miles along the curve of the Zebulon River, before the river turned south and the Scenic continued west into Pike. The T intersection of CR 686 perched on a little rise, a rise nearly as imperceptible as the bump in the center of an inexpensive plate.

From that bump, the earth was unquestionably flat, the sky unquestionably domed, and it seemed to me when I was a child in school, learning about Columbus, that in spite of what my teacher said, ancient cultures might have been onto something. No globe or map fully convinced me that Zebulon County was not the center of the universe. Certainly, Zebulon County, where the earth was flat, was one spot where a sphere (a seed, a rubber ball, a ballbearing) must come to perfect rest and once at rest must send a taproot downward into the ten-foot-thick topsoil.

Because the intersection was on this tiny rise, you could see our buildings, a mile distant, at the southern edge of the farm. A mile to the east, you could see three silos that marked the northeastern corner, and if you raked your gaze from the silos to the house and barn, then back again, you would take in the immensity of the piece of land my father owned, six hundred forty acres, a whole section, paid for, no encumbrances, as flat and fertile, black, friable, and exposed as any piece of land on the face of the earth.

If you looked west from the intersection, you saw no sign of anything remotely scenic in the distance. That was because the Zebulon River had cut down through topsoil and limestone, and made its pretty course a valley below the level of the surrounding farmlands. Nor, except at night, did you see any sign of Cabot. You saw only this, two sets of farm buildings surrounded by fields. In the nearer set lived the Ericsons, who had daughters the ages of my sister Rose and myself, and in the farther set lived the Clarks, whose sons, Loren and Jess, were in grammar school when we were in junior high. Harold Clark was my father's best friend. He had five hundred acres and no mortgage. The Ericsons had three hundred seventy acres and a mortgage.

Acreage and financing were facts as basic as the name and gender in Zebulon County. Harold Clark and my father used to argue at our kitchen table about who should get the Ericson land when they finally lost their mortgage. I was aware of this whenever I played with Ruthie Ericson, whenever my mother, my sister Rose, and I went over to help can garden produce, whenever Mrs. Ericson brought over some pies or doughnuts, whenever my father loaned Mr. Ericson a tool, whenever we ate Sunday dinner in the Ericson's kitchen. I recognized the justice of Harold Clark's opinion that the Ericson' land was on his side of the road, but even so, I thought it should be us. For one thing, Dinah Ericson's bedroom had a window seat in the closet that I coveted. For another, I thought it appropriate and desirable that the great circle of the flat earth spreading out from the T intersection of County Road 686 and Cabot Street be ours. A thousand acres. It was that simple.

It was 1951 and I was eight when I saw the farm and the future in this way. That was the year my father bought his first car, a Buick sedan with prickly gray velvet seats, so rounded and slick that it was easy to slide off the backseat into the footwell when we went over a stiff bump or around a sharp corner. That was also the year my sister Caroline was born, which was undoubtedly the reason my father bought the car. The Ericson Children and the Clark children continued to ride in the back of the farm pickup, but the Cook children kicked their toes against a front seat and stared out the back windows, nicely protected from the dust. The car was the exact measure of six hundred forty acres compared to three hundred or five hundred.

In spite of the price of gasoline, we took a lot of rides that year, something farmers rarely do, and my father never again did after Caroline was born. For me, it was a pleasure like a secret hoard of coins—Rose, whom I adored, sitting against me in the hot musty velvet luxury of the car's interior, the click of the gravel on its undercarriage, the sensation of the car swimming in the rutted road, the farms passing every minute, reduced from vastness to insignificance by our speed; the unaccustomed sense of leisure; most important, though, the reassuring note of my father's and mother's voices commenting on what they saw—he on the progress of the yearly work and the condition of the animals in the pastures, she on the look and size of the house and garden, the colors of the buildings. Their tones of voice were unhurried and self-confident, complacent with the knowledge that the work at our place was farther along, the buildings at our place more imposing and better cared for. When I think of them now, I think how they had probably seen nearly as little of the world as I had by that time. But when I listened to their duet then, I nestled into the certainty of the way, through the repeated comparisons, our farm and our lives seemed secure and good.

Reading Group Guide

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner


“Brilliant. . . . absorbing. . . . A thrilling work of art.” —Chicago Sun-Times

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of A Thousand Acres, the extraordinary novel that established Jane Smiley as one of America’s greatest writers.

1. How does the symbiotic relationship between person and place addressed in Ms. Smiley’s choice of epigraph play itself out in the novel? How does setting shape character and vice versa? Which seems to have the upper hand? How is Zebulon County itself a major character in A Thousand Acres?

2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Ginny’s narration? Is she able to maintain clarity and candor throughout her chronicling of events? What gets in the way? Is she as forthcoming in portraying herself as she is in discussing others? Why or why not? How would the novel differ if told from the perspective of Rose, Caroline, Jess, or Larry?

3. At the outset of the novel, Ginny confesses that retrospection has not revealed too much about the drama that unfolded when her father decided to hand over the farm to Rose and her and leave out Caroline: “I’ve thought over every moment of that party time and time again, sifting for pointers, signals, ways of knowing how to do things differently from the way they got done. There were no clues” [p. 13]. To what extent does the story that she then tells undermine this claim? What remains a mystery despite her scrutiny?

4. What are the most tragic elements of A Thousand Acres? Which of these elements are rooted in the exercise of an individual’s will, and which seem attributable to something beyond the scope of human volition? Where does the novel ultimately situate itself in the enduring fate v. free will debate?

5. What do you see as Smiley’s debt to Shakespeare’s King Lear? Where do the two works part ways? What provides A Thousand Acres with its autonomy despite its borrowed plot and characters?

6. Which of the issues explored in A Thousand Acres are unique to rural life in America? Which resonate regardless of geography? What does the novel reveal about variations and consistencies in the so-called American character?

7. What are a few of the guises in which passion appears in A Thousand Acres? What seems to lie at the root of each guise? Which do the most damage? Why do some characters yield to a desire for authority, acreage, etc., while others resist such temptations? Is there greater freedom in following passion or in checking it? What does the novel teach us about the nature of passion, restraint, and indulgence?

8. The interior lives of Caroline as well as Larry remain relatively unexamined compared to those of Rose and Ginny, their spouses, and Jess. What is the dramatic and thematic significance of keeping these characters in the shadows?

9. Contemplating her father’s momentous decision, Ginny marvels at its apparent rashness. “He decided to change his whole life on Wednesday!” she exclaims. “Objectively, this is an absurdity” [p. 34]. Her remark points to the struggle against the whims of chance that appears throughout A Thousand Acres. How does the deliberate adherence to daily routine help the characters to weather the vicissitudes of the natural world and the inconsistency of human nature? What kind of solace and safety, if any, do seasonal chores and rituals provide?

10. Discuss the myriad ways that motherhood—and fatherhood—are weighed in the novel. How does Ginny’s ineluctable desire to give birth shape her view of her present and past? What meaning does she derive from the many surrogate-maternal roles she plays? In what ways is her mother’s long absence a constant presence?

11. “Our bond had a peculiar fertility that I was wise enough to appreciate, and also, perhaps, wise enough to appreciate in silence,” Ginny says. “Rose wouldn’t have stood for any sentimentality” [p. 62]. Reticence seems the norm among these characters, yet they express themselves in other ways. What nonverbal forms of communication do they use? What are the reach and limits of each? What are the perils and possibilities?

12. Is there a particular political view or ideology at work in A Thousand Acres? If so, what is it? Does viewing the novel through the lens of feminism, for example, limit or enlarge it? What do you see as the novelist’s responsibility vis-a-vis politics? Does this work fall closer to agenda or inquiry?

13. “The first novel I ever knew was my family,” writes Ms. Smiley in the afterword to Family: American Writers Remember Their Own (David McKay Co., 1997). “We had every necessary element, from the wealth of incident both domestic and historical, to the large cast of characters. We had geographical sweep and the requisite, for an American novel, adventure in the West.” How can A Thousand Acres be interpreted as a meditation on family? How does the novel shed light on the dark corners of family life? How are the Cooks both anomalous to and representative of the average American family? What explains their tragic dissolution? What could have prevented it?

14. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a story that is told almost entirely in the past tense? How does this affect your interpretation of the novel?

15. Ginny is stilled by the disturbing thought that her own “endurance might be a pleasant fiction allowed [her] by others who’ve really faced facts” [p. 90]. Is it? Do you construe her story, i.e., the novel, as flight from a difficult reality or a means of confronting it? Why?

16. During a game of Monopoly, Jess describes Harold as someone who is “cannier and smarter than he lets on,” then suggests that real freedom exists in “the slippage between what he looks like and what he is” [p. 109]. How does the relationship between appearance and reality drive the novel’s action in terms of the meaning and direction of its characters’ lives? What kind of importance does Jane Smiley assign to this relationship?

17. In what reads like a muted epiphany, Ginny considers the constant weight and exhaustion she felt in the months after her mother’s death and then realizes that one reaches a point where “relief is good enough” [p. 198]. Is this remark an expression of resignation or true acceptance?

18. In a candid conversation with Rose, Ginny voices her inability to understand her father’s abuse despite Rose’s insistence that the matter is a simple case of “I want, I take, I do.” Ginny says, “I can’t believe it’s that simple,” to which Rose responds: “If you probe and probe and try to understand, it just holds you back” [p. 212]. What does this exchange reveal about the limitations of reason? About the possibility or impossibility of true catharsis? What options exist when the rational is exhausted?

Customer Reviews

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Thousand Acres 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 81 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I do agree that the author did a nice job with the setting and characters, and I was certainly drawn in to the plot. There is no doubt it was well written however, I was left asking why it was written? In the end, I wasn't sure what I was supposed to take away from this book. It was one of the most dissapointing books I've ever read (and I have read a lot). I'm shocked people described it as the best book they've ever read. It really goes to show you how different people can be. I would ask yourself why you read a book. If the answer is to be entertained, to learn something, or to find hope, I would not reccomend this book. I was left with a giant hole in my heart for every single character in this book. I choose not to believe that life is this hopeless.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a recipient of the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's play King Lear set on an Iowa farm during the 1980s. Narrated from the point of view of one of three daughters of the farm owner, she exposes the reader to the dark and unflattering reality of farm life in rural America. The father is cruel and abusive towards his daughters, setting the depressing and dark mood of the novel. As the father gets older, he becomes aware that maintaining the farm is more difficult than before. He therefore decides to divide the ownership of the family's one thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, leading to a series of events that unravel the family's darkest secrets. A Thousand Acres turned out to be a disappointing read considering all the awards and titles it has earned. Overall, Jane Smiley deserves credit for attempting to create a modern version of the Shakespeare play King Lear. However, though Smiley's concept was brilliant, the content of the novel does not meet the brilliance of her idea of creating a King Lear on an Iowan farm in the 1980s. From the beginning, the novel lacks action and has excess detail and descriptions used to build up the complex characters, allowing the storyline to drag along. The novel is enough to spoil the reader's mood and it may be disturbing and inappropriate for younger readers. Everything from paternal abuse, sexual abuse, incest, death, rape, and miscarriages happen on the thousand-acre farm. Certainly, A Thousand Acres is not a lighthearted, easy-read novel, and its dark themes and events listed previously may appeal to only select readers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unlike some other customer reviewers, I really liked this book. No, it's not an easy read, and it's not a "feel good story." It is literature. The cadence of Smiley's prose pulls the reader into the smothering world of the rural farmer, and the events that unfold are shocking. The parallels to Lear aee ambitious and effective. Highly recommend.
isitworthmytime More than 1 year ago
Life is too short for this read. I tried to give this book a chance as it was recommended by a friend. i did like the first half of the book where life on the farm was slowed down and the characters were developed so nicely. It was difficult to stay with the book after the father's meltdown. It did anger me that the alleged violation of the main character was not devastating to her, that she doubted it had happened at all and went on with her routine. I guess that was the point. But her continued pursuit of her love interest reminded me of a school girl obsession and was tiresome. I kept waiting for something to happen and it didnt. Again i guess thats the point. When she started making the jarred sausages this book became a mad fantasy and i could not connect to it anymore. I get in the end she was just like her father but really was that all? I wished i had spent a few days on something i would want to pass on to a friend. This was no a pass on. This was a pass over.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book tells the fascinating journey of one seemingly boring (on the outside) farmwife's life in Iowa. It tells the story of a family and all the large and small betrayals they inflict on each other. This story kept me rapt. Lots of twists and turns. Loved it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I chose to read this book because it was a pultizer prize winner. I am almost to the half way point of the book and I'm completely sick of reading it. I'm glad I did not have to read this book for a school assignment. After reading the first few chapters I continued to read thinking to myself that the story is going to get better, but it has not. In my opinion, if a reader has not reached the juicy meaty part after arriving halfway through the book, the book is not worth reading any further.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was good, but it lacked emotionality. It could have been a tear jerker, but something was missing. This book was NOT worthy of a Pulitzer!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was merely curious when I picked this book up from my sisters shelf and had decided to 'idly' leaf through it. I soon found myself reading in rapture. I think this book lends a different perspective as to how we live in our hearts, with our families living under one roof and eventually leaving the place we had grown up in, our relationships with our parents and siblings, how we interact with our neighbors and the community and general. It makes us realize what we are willing to cover about ourselves, the truths about us and our family, what we could also call our 'skeletons in our closets'. It also makes us think if we want to run away from that life, that experience or if we want to keep a blind eye to it, deny it ever happened pretend the pain, the confusion had never existed or if we face that evil and if we decide to face it. And if we do, do we have the courage to face it or will we crumble? Try to read this!
Guest More than 1 year ago
i studies this book as a comparitive literary study with king lear in college, and i have to say that it is probably one of the most dull and badly written books i have read. yes it provides a different perspective, but was king lear really written from the male perspective in the first place? it is a play after all, not a novel! smiley didn't provide much action, i felt like most of the book was based on overly emphasising themes that she must have picked up on when she studied king lear. overall, not a very good book. adaptations rarely are, if it isn't broke, don't fix it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I played Edmund in my college's production of 'King Lear' during my senior year. When you spend eight weeks rehearsing a play, it sticks with you. When I picked up 'A Thousand Acres,' it had been recommended to me by a friend who didn't know King Lear from Norman Lear -- but as soon as I realized what Jane Smiley had done by recasting Shakespeare's tragedy in the Great Plains, I was riveted. This isn't just an update of the story, but a retelling and repurposing. In Shakespeare's play, Goneril and Regan are heartless and evil. Smiley's novel is written from Ginny's point of view, and she and her sister Rose are given sympathetic motivations, proving that there are indeed two sides to every story. 'A Thousand Acres' changed the way I see 'King Lear' forever ...
Guest More than 1 year ago
i thought it was very boring highly NOT recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Maybe you have to get some living under your belt to appreciate this marvelous novel. It is so realistic, so emotionally dramatic [that's where the action is, INSIDE the people], so exceedingly accurate in the way the characters intereact and are described. It is so TRUE. Smiley did a great job and this work seems to sum up all parts of the U.S. in the late 20th century, even though it is set in the midwest. It gets to the core of what life is about--bonds, hard work, heartbreak, and rebirth.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel was overly written and that she seemed to try to hard when writing this, it really annoyed me that she had to explain every detail about every thing, i took her a whole chapter to explain where they live. so i felt that this was a tediously long novel. i also think that Smiley needs to come up with her own ideas because it really annoys me when authors cant come with their own plot!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I saw the film first. Then I read the book. I loved the film and I thought the book was one of the best I've ever read and probably ever will. I enjoyed it so much. I connected with the farm living and Southern feel. I loved reading about the conflicts and the family problems. I related to all of this. Smiley wrote an amazing book that should be shared with everyone. This book deserved all the critical praise it got. I'm glad I got to experience it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A patchwork Lear and his cursed daughters come to life again in this stunning modernization of Shakespeare's play. A story of secrets and skeletons that grips the reader and does not let go.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kept waiting for it to get good - it didn’t
1morechapter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 1992This was one of the Pulitzers I had been looking forward to reading the most because farming has been in my family for generations. I always appreciate books that depict rural living. Farming is a way of life but it is also a business, and when business and family are combined it can sometimes be a touchy situation. This novel explored that aspect very well. Add to that family secrets, problems with aging, and `keeping up appearances¿ for the neighbors and you have a very interesting and engaging book.One of the interesting sidelines of the book for me was the interest in organic farming and the harm of pesticides, etc. to the environment and human health. I am not a fan of the direction that farming is going with GMOs and the use of hormones for livestock. This has trickled down to the local farmer as well, and is not limited anymore to just corporate farms. It¿s unfortunate that many family farms have had to resort to these practices to compete; I don¿t think they fully realize the risks being done to human health.I¿m not sure I would have chosen this novel for the Pulitzer. To begin with, the plot is somewhat borrowed from Shakespeare¿s King Lear. I am of the opinion that the prize should be given to a completely original work. There were also aspects of the relationships among the sisters that were a bit unbelievable for me. Still, I¿m glad I read it and deemed it worthy of at least 4 stars.
smallwonder56 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sometimes (too often) I balk at reading a book that everybody else is reading and raving about. I shouldn't have put off reading "A Thousand Acres", though I think it made much more sense to me at 56 than it would've when it first came out.Yes, I saw the King Lear parallels, but this book was so much more than that. I grew up on a small farm in the West, and this is a version of almost every farm family I know, including some branches of my family. Smiley has so much insight into what makes a farm family tick, and what skewed emotions can color the various versions of people's stories. Everybody in a family grows up with a different set of parents and in a different environment, even when they're siblings who are just a couple of years apart in age. The only thing I missed in the characters was more fleshing out of some of the "supporting" family members. What made Caroline such a jerk, for example? Wouldn't she have had some loyalty to the sisters who took care of her? In any case, the writing is amazing, the story is tense and tight and it left me wondering what happened to them all after that. Wonderful book. Definitely one of my top 10.
TanyaTomato on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am going to reread this book. I remember not liking it, but over the years I have thought about it a lot and I have come to believe that I was not ready for it.
jonesli on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This 1992 Pulitzer winner is the story of Larry Cook and his daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline. Larry is a successful farmer with a 1000 acre farm that he intends to divide equally among his three daughters and their spouses. When the youngest daughter Caroline, has a problem with her father's plan, she is cut out of his will.The story is told from Ginny's viewpoint, who at times feels as though all she does is cook, clean, and take care of everyone else. The one thing that she longs for, she can't seem to have, and she shares a very difficult relationship with her father and sisters. There are also some very deep rooted supressed memories that come to light, that make for a very emotional story.A Thousand Acres is touted as a "reimagining" of King Lear which the reader is able to pick up on immediately.Overall, this was an ok read for me.
Laura400 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a hard book to review. It is well-written, it is intelligent, it is a gripping read, and it made me think of King Lear in a different light. Yet, it was such a disturbing book that I didn't enjoy it. In the many years since I read it, when I've thought about it, it has been with the same mixture of admiration and unease. I don't know if it's fair to penalize a book for being too affecting. On the other hand, I've read and admired many books about difficult topics that left me richer for the experience. This one did not, for some reason.
Marliesd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this a long time ago. It's very good and quite disturbing.
sturlington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A bittersweet novel about the decline of the family farm, the lack of choices for farm women, the scrutiny of the small town and the destructive secrets kept by families.
Gwendydd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an exceptionally well-written book, but it is deeply distressing and saddening. It is a modern retelling of the King Lear story, which is, of course, one of the most tragic and depressing stories ever. It tells the story of three sisters and their father who live on a thousand acres of fertile farmland in the Midwest. The father is cruel and abusive and arbitrary, and the daughters do their best to please him but never succeed. He is aging, and creates a huge rift in the family when he tries to give his farmland to his daughters.There is another character in this story, though, and this is what makes the book interesting: the farm itself. The life of farmers naturally revolves around cycles of weather, the condition of the soil, and a constant awareness of nature. The family farms with traditional chemicals - pesticides, herbicides, and other poisons. The land, the enrichment of the land for farming, and the slow poisoning of the land is a constant undercurrent in the book, and ultimately drives the action of the main characters. Smiley manages, in a very subtle way, to make a point about organic farming, without ever really bringing it up.The book is well-written: the characters are real and engaging, even if few of them are likable. The descriptions are vivid, and even though there isn't a whole lot of action in the book, the story is still suspenseful. It is, however, very sad. The characters are so real that we share their pain, and even must learn to turn off our emotions as they have, to dull ourselves to the tragedy of the storyline. In the end, I'm not sure that all of this pain was rewarded: I generally hope, when reading a really tragic book, that I will come away from it enriched. This book was enriching, but not quite in proportion to the pain within its pages. (Perhaps I might feel differently about this if I read the book at a different time - this time around, I wasn't quite prepared for the tragedy.)