Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

In the Far East, there are plenty of people who own a robe and a bowl. That’s all. They throw themselves on the waters of the world, and they know they will be borne up. They are more secure than you or I. I know by now that I can’t be like that. I’m too American. But I know it’s possible. That gives me a sense of security.

That comes early in Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, one character talking to another, and it struck me as interesting and wise in a Zen kind of way. By the end of the novel, our first person narrator, Ginny Cook, a person very much tied to her family’s farm and her dysfunctional but outwardly upstanding family, will do exactly that—throwing herself on the waters of the world in an attempt to get washed clean of her guilt and shame.

But you don’t know that going in.

What you learn bit by expertly-written bit is that Ginny and her sisters Rose and Caroline have lived all their lives in the fearful shadow of their domineering father, and have grown into women with three different ways of harmonizing those childhood experiences with their own independent personhood.

The story is loosely based on King Lear, and I wish my Shakespeare was more up-to-date so I could better understand all the literary comparisons. Ginny, Rose and Caroline are obviously Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and their father, Larry, is clearly Lear—and aging landowner who decides quite suddenly to deed his farm—his thousand acres—to them in equal portions. But Caroline, Larry’s favorite as a child and most distant from him in adulthood, does the wrong thing at the wrong time, and Larry abruptly cuts her out of the deal.

One of the things that Smiley does really well in this novel is show you all sides of the characters, especially in how they relate to each other and their images of themselves. It’s so well done because none of the characters talk openly about their feelings. Like a lot of dysfunctional families, the passions and the guilt bubble and burn just under the surface. Here Ginny is talking about Caroline as a child:

We [Ginny and Rose, who had helped raised Caroline after their mother died] had no principles beyond those that were used with us, but it was true, as Daddy often said, that she [Caroline] was a better child than we had been, neither stubborn and sullen like me, nor rebellious and back talking, like Rose. He praised her for being a Loving Child, who kissed her dolls, and kissed him, too, when he wanted a kiss. If he said, “Cary, give me a kiss,” that way he always did, without warning, half an order, half a plea, she would pop into his lap and put her arms around his neck and smack him on the lips. Seeing her do it always made me feel odd, as if a heavy stone were floating and turning within me, that stone of stubbornness and reluctance that kept me any more from being asked.

Clear pictures of them all, in a small number of words, including Larry, for whom the “half an order, half a plea” comment demonstrates Smiley’s keen insight in into the psychology of all her characters, even her male ones.

This really impressed me. The novel is written by a woman with women as the main characters, but it is definitely not a “chick” book. Everyone in the book is a person—flawed and complete—both the women and the men. Here’s an especially perceptive dissertation on the inner differences between men and women.

Since my talk with Jess the day I planted tomatoes, my sense of the men I knew had undergone a subtle shift. I was less automatically critical—yes, they all had misbehaved, and failed, too, but now I saw that you could also say that they had suffered setbacks, suffered them, and suffered, period. That was the key. I would have said that certainly Rose and I had suffered, too, and Caroline and Mary Livingstone and all the women I knew, but there seemed to be a dumb, unknowing quality to the way the men had suffered, as if, like animals, it was not possible for them to gain perspective on their suffering. They had us. Rose and me, in their suffering, but they didn’t seem to have what we had with each other, a kind of ongoing narrative and commentary about what was happening that grew out of our conversations, our rolled eyes, our sighs and jokes and irritated remarks. The result for us was that we found ourselves more or less prepared for the blows that fell—we could at least make that oddly comforting remark, “I knew all along something like this was going to happen.” The men, and Pete in particular, always seemed a little surprised, and therefore a little more hurt and a little more damaged, by things that happened—the deaths of prized animals, accidents, my father’s blowups and contempt, forays into commodity trading and lost money, even—for Ty—my miscarriages. Of course he refused to try any more. He had counted on each pregnancy as if there was no history.

Smiley’s a master at this, and she needs to be, because the traditional gender roles of men and women are a big part of the subtext of her novel. Here’s an exchange between two of the men (Ty, Ginny’s husband, and Jess, her eventual lover), reflecting the time of the novel—the late 1970s.

What I had forgotten was the pleasure of a guest for dinner, someone unrelated, with sociable habits learned far away. While we helped ourselves, Ty said, “What do they think about this oil shortage out west?”

“Oil company scam.”

“They’ve got Carter by the short hairs.” Ty glanced at me, because he knew I rather liked Carter, or at least, Like Rosalynn and Miss Lillian. I rolled my eyes.

“The thing is,” said Jess, “he’s a realist. He looks at all sides. He ponders what he should do in a thoughtful way. You should never have a realist in the White House. Being president is too scary for a realist.” I laughed. Ty said, “Ginny likes him. I voted for him, I’ve got to say, though I don’t know a thing about farming peanuts. But every time something comes up, he just wrings his hands.”

“Nah,” said Jess. “He says, ‘What should I do?’ A president’s got to say, ‘What do I want to do? What will make me feel good now that I’m feelin’ so bad?’ He’s like a farmer, you see, only the big pieces of equipment he’s got access to are weapons, that’s the difference.”

Good advice for presidents, but also for farmers, and for anyone else—male or female—who wants to take charge of their circumstances and be successful. It’s something that Ginny has a hard time doing, plagued as she is by bouts of self-doubt and worry.

Had I faced all the facts? It seemed like I had, but actually, you never know, just remembering, how many facts there were to have faced. Your own endurance might be a pleasant fiction allowed you by other who’ve really faced the facts. The eerie feeling this thought gave me made me shiver in the hot wind.

Most of this indecision, we discover bit by bit, is driven by her father and her fractured and difficult relationship with him. Here’s a typical encounter for Ginny, in which she struggles with something as simple as cooking his breakfast.

He backed away from the door and I entered the mudroom and put on the apron that hung from a hook there. He said, “Nobody shopped over the weekend. There’s no eggs.”

“Oh, darn. I meant to bring them down. I bought some for you yesterday, but I forgot them.” I looked him square in the eye. It was my choice, to keep him waiting or to fail to give him his eggs. His gaze was flat, brassily reflective. Not only wasn’t he going to help me decide, my decision was a test. I could push past him, give him toast and cereal and bacon, a breakfast without a center of gravity, or I could run home and get the eggs. My choice would show him something about me, either that I was selfish and inconsiderate (no eggs) or that I was incompetent (a flurry of activity where there should be organized procedure). I did it. I smiled foolishly, said I would be right back, and ran out the door and back down the road. The whole way I was conscious of my body—graceless and hurrying, unfit, panting, ridiculous in its very femininity. It seemed like my father could just look out of his big front window and see me naked, chest heaving, breasts, thighs, and buttocks jiggling, dignity irretrievable. Later, after I had cooked the breakfast and he had eaten it, what I marveled at was that I hadn’t just gone across the road and gotten some eggs from Rose, that he had given me the test, and I had taken it.

Only later in the novel does this paralysis and fear begin to make sense—but only to a degree. In what must surely be one of the most surreal passages in all fiction, it is revealed to Ginny by her sister Rose that their father raped and sexually molested them both throughout their adolescence—a memory that has been completely suppressed by Ginny, to such a degree that she herself does not believe it until much later in the novel when she is overcome with the memory while lying down on her childhood bed in her father’s house. With Ginny as our first person narrator, the reader spends a good deal of time not knowing whether to believe Rose’s accusation or not—the evidence seems to fit, but the victim herself denies it. The denial is, in fact, Ginny’s primary strategy for living—denial and abject fear that feelings should be brought out into the open and displayed.

Rose is very different. She’s a fighter, scarred and bitter from the wars she has been forced to fight against cancer, against her father , and against a world designed by men like him—one that allows atrocities like his to be kept secret in darkened bedrooms while the perpetrators are lauded as successful businessmen and community leaders. Another crony of Larry’s (Harold, Jess’ father) is blinded (like Gloucester in King Lear) when he is accidently sprayed in the face with pesticides and is unable to wash the chemicals from his eyes because he has let his water tank run dry. Shortly after it happens, Ginny and Rose have this exchange, perfectly representing Rose’s view of things. Ginny begins:

“Well, it just struck me so vividly, that’s all. It’s every farmer’s nightmare. I almost threw up.”

“The actual event is shocking. I admit that.” She picked up her scissors and looked at me. “But I said it the other night. Weakness does nothing for me. I don’t care if they suffer. When they suffer, then they’re convinced they’re innocent again. Don’t you think Hitler was afraid and in pain when he died? Do you care? If he died thinking his cause was just and right, that all those Jews and everybody deserved to be exterminated, that at least he lived long enough to perform his life’s work, wouldn’t you have enjoyed his pain and wished him more? There has to be remorse. There has to be making amends to the ones you destroyed, otherwise the books are never balanced.”

“But this is Harold, not Daddy.”

“What’s the difference? You know what Jess told me? Once Harold was driving the cornpicker, when Jess was a boy, and there was a fawn lying in the corn, and Harold drove right over it rather than leave the row standing, or turn, or even just stop and chase it away.”

“Maybe he didn’t see it.”

“After he drove over it, he didn’t stop to kill it, either. He just let it die.”

“Oh, Rose.” The tears burst from my eyes.

“Daddy killed animals in the fields every year. Just because they were rabbits and birds instead of fawns—I don’t know.” She looked at me and smiled slightly. “When Jess told me, I cried, too. Then the next day I helped Pete load hogs for the sale barn. I thought about Daddy saying, that’s life. That’s farming. So, I say to Harold, gee, Harold, you should have checked the water tank. That’s farming. They made rules for us to live by. They’ve got to live by them, too.”

But this is not Ginny. This is much too direct and honest. For Ginny, the most fearful thing in the world is to tell people what she really thinks, and for the world to know how things truly are.

It was terrifying to think of myself so obvious, so transparent. I remembered just then how my mother used to say that God could see to the very bottom of every soul, a soul was as clear to God as a rippling brook. The implication, I knew even then, was that my mother could do the same thing. My lips were dry and hot, and I thought of right then just asking Pete what he knew, how he found it out—from Ty or Rose or Daddy or Jess himself. Wouldn’t it be a relief to have everything out in the open for once?

But that question was easy to answer, too. And the answer was negative. The last few weeks had shown well enough for anyone to understand that the one thing our family couldn’t tolerate, that maybe no family could tolerate, was thing coming into the open.

And Ginny isn’t the only one whose life is affected by the need to keep up appearances. When things go so sour with her father he decides to sue his daughters (Ginny and Rose) and their husbands (Ty and Pete) to get his farm back, accusing them of mismanagement. For weeks leading up to the trial, Ginny and the others have to live under the watchful Eye of their entire community—doing everything they can to keep an orderly farm and orderly houses, not providing any ammunition for their father and his attorney to fire at them.

I was amazed at what I didn’t have time for any more—reading, sewing, watching TV, talking to Rose, talking to Ty, strolling down the road, departing from the directives of my shopping list, taking the girls places. That Eye was always looking, day and night, even when there were no neighbors in sight. Even when no one who could possibly testify for or against me was within miles. I felt the familiar sensation of storing up virtue for a later date. The days passed.

Around the first of August, Pete got drunk and took a gun over to Harold Clark’s place and threatened Harold, who was sitting on the porch and kept shouting, “Pete, you don’t think I can see you but I can, so you just get away from here before Loren calls the sheriff! Get away now. I see you for sure,” always turning his head the wrong way. Then after he terrorized Harold, he drove his own silver truck into the quarry and drowned, and nobody knew whether it was an accident. According to his blood alcohol level, he shouldn’t have been conscious enough to drive, much less to stay on the road.

The juxtaposition or Ginny’s reaction to the Eye, acclimated as she is to its presence, and Pete’s is stark and well constructed. That last paragraph is a shock when it comes, but at the same time it is totally understandable. Pete is a man and Ginny is a woman, and in Smiley’s deft prose and character development, it makes sense that one would be able to smother her true self away from the attention of others, and the other would have to strike out and futilely assert himself.

It’s sad to say, but the end of the book is a bit of a disappointment. It’s been foreshadowed that Ginny will eventually break loose from the familial bonds that restrain her, but when she does it rings hollow.

First, unbelievably, she tries to kill her sister, jealous that Rose has been romantically involved with Jess, the same man she has had a tryst with. It is not a direct action—poisoning some canned sausage she expects Rose to eat at some point during a long winter—but even that seems radically out of character for Ginny. And then she leaves her husband, leaves everyone and everything, waitressing for years under an assumed name in the Twin Cities. Eventually, she comes back to take charge of her two nieces after Rose dies of her breast cancer, but it’s only for a brief time, and she takes the girls back to the city with her. At the very end of the novel, Ginny muses on the life she had led:

And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me something, too, which is her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the ability it confers, of remembering what you can’t imagine. I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he probably chose never to remember—the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house late at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness. This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all others.

It’s a troubling end to a troubling novel, especially with the way Smiley chooses to link Ginny’s decision to kill her sister with Larry’s decision to rape his daughters. It leaves me wondering how like him she truly is, and what she is likely to do to her nieces. In Smiley’s world as well as the one we all share, after all, cycles of abuse will continually repeat themselves.


  1. Nice article, helped me a great deal with a paper I'm working on

    1. You're welcome. Be sure to cite me as a source.

  2. Good article. I've only seen the movie, and this really opened my eyes to the characters.