A Thousand Acres

Rating: +

Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear, set in the recent past of the American Midwest, in farm country. This is a very good book, but it is also an emotionally difficult book at times. But for me, most of what I liked about it was seeing what a talented writer was able to do to work over my favorite Shakespeare play.

To draw out some more of the connections between A Thousand Acres and King Lear: the father in A Thousand Acres (Larry) has decided at the beginning of the book to retire from farming and split the farm between his three daughters (who have names starting with C, R, and G). C tells her father she isn't sure that's such a good idea, and her father disowns her. The story continues from there, with the father wanting to retain control over what happens on the farm and perceives lack of respect for himself, while the daughters want to be able to run their lives and the farm the way they think best.

The plot follows that of Lear quite closely, particularly once the analogy being used is taken into account, but it is told from the perspective of the daughters. In this way we see, I think, a very plausible alternative account of Lear where we are able to see why the daughters act as they do.

I was amused by some of the plot devices that had to be altered to shift this story to modern times. Rather than battles over who has rights to land being planned by gathering armies, the various sides have meetings with lawyers. It struck me as an apt analogy for the role that lawyers have in our society today...

Of course, there are some plot departures (the book would be too predictable if there weren't) that are not consistent with Lear. But I thought that this strengthened A Thousand Acres as a retelling of Lear, since Smiley didn't just transpose each plot item literally but tried to also be faithful to the new aspects of the father and daughters.

I liked this book quite a lot, and I think that it can be read without spoiling the original play.


Review written September 1999.


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