Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Has this ever happened to you? You don't know the name of a book or it's author. You don't even really know the plot. But you know just enough about it to know that you want to read it. Hopefully you recognize it when you actually find it.

Here's what I had: it's Shakespeare's "King Lear," but set on a farm in the American Midwest.

I've carried around that bit of information in my brain for years like a dusty piece of candy in a coat pocket. (Mmmmm, pocket candy.) I don't know how it came to be lodged in my memory-hole, but there it was, taunting me, a book that I knew I would like but had no idea how to get.

No, I wasn't going to look on the Internet. That strategy is for out-of-print comic books and scone recipes. Don't interrupt.

The King Lear-on-a-farm book, I now know, is Jane Smiley's Pulitzer-winning novel, "A Thousand Acres." My eyes skimmed over it when I was sifting through the $2 bin in front of Book Court because it had trashy romance novel font, and I've trained my eyes to avoid that font as assiduously as I avoid roadkill and people handing out fliers in Times Square. Me mum snatched it up and said, "You have to read this, this is a great book."

"Is it the one that's King Lear on a farm?" I asked. Honestly, this was a stab in the dark. I hadn't even read the description on the back cover yet. The book just set my biblio-sense a'tingling.

She looked at me blankly. "I don't know what that means."

I opened the book and read the first review blurb. "No, that's the one. I totally want to read it."

And you, too, should totally read "A Thousand Acres." Do we all know the plot of King Lear? Old king decides to split up his kingdom between his three daughters, but the youngest daughter refuses to flatter him, so he banishes her and splits his kingdom between the oldest two daughters, who treat him badly once they have all the power. Family drama ensues, as does some mad wandering on the moor, and there may be a war in there that I'm forgetting.

So "A Thousand Acres" is about a farmer who owns a thousand acres of prime farmland in Iowa, and he decides to incorporate his farm and split the shares equally among his three daughters and their husbands. The youngest daughter expresses misgivings about the plan, so the father immediately cuts her out of the plan and won't even let her come into his house. Family drama ensues when the father decides he wants the land back. Some man wandering on the plains, a blinding and a couple of affairs later, and everything falls apart. It's all very exciting.

I knew there was a reason I'd always wanted to read this book. I tore through it like a wildfire. It's all so deliciously tragic, like watching a train wreck in slow-motion. The oldest daughter can't get pregnant; the middle daughter has breast cancer; the youngest daughter is city-fied and thinks her sisters conned their crazy old father out of his land. But the more you learn about the father himself, the more you realize what an absolute bastard he is, just a cruel, manipulating, vile excuse for a human being. He's poisoned every aspect of his family's lives, and the further away from him they seem to get, the more he ruins their lives. Depression--espionage--suicide! G-d, I loved this book.

I have to confess to having a secret love of Midwest literature. Although I talk a lot about being from Hawaii and living in New York, I also have a connection to all that middle country, the "flyover states," as us city liberals like to say. One of my father's aunts married into a wheat farming family out in Montana, and for my tenth birthday he took me out to their house to go dear hunting in the fields. There's something hypnotic and humbling about being on the plain underneath all that sky, and hearing the wind moaning in the eaves of the house after everyone has gone to bed. A good deal of the American identity--of my own identity--is out there with the wheat and corn. I loved "A Thousand Acres" like I loved "O, Pioneers!" and the Little House on the Prairie books, because they're all about American farmers, and the sadness and cruelty and loneliness of that kind of life.

I also recommend reading "King Lear," if you're into Shakespeare. The language trips a lot of people up, but it's amazing how he managed to predict a lot of modern anxieties about inheritance and care-giving. Plus, this speech:

"Howl, howl, howl, howl! O! you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vaults should crack."

William Effing Shakespeare, gang.

No comments:

Post a Comment