A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Ok, wow, this book might be a little too on the nose. I definitely identified with certain aspects of it. Overall, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is a good book, written by a objectively talented writer.

I read some short stories by Smiley in undergrad, but I hadn’t ever returned, until now. This book is about a farming family and the challenges they face as they try to navigate what to do with the land as the patriarch ages, an incredibly complicated and tough challenge. Smiley does an amazing job of navigating people’s natural fears, jealousies, ambitions, trauma, heartache, and more, with nuance. In fact, I found myself reading her bio, wondering if she had a rural background. Her understanding of, for example, how women cook food just felt so very rural midwestern and real. However, it appears that she grew up in the suburbs, which is baffling because she knows this world so well. According to her bibliography, she’s written other rural texts too. Maybe she has grandparents who were farmers.

I do have a critique of the book, and it’s one I would like to ask her about. [Spoiler ahead] In the book, a pretty shocking level of abuse is revealed. While I think this is valid subject matter, the abuse is so stunning that it reaches the point of distraction, from the narrative, from some other purposes, etc. I believe it was Hemingway who advised that an author should start the story after the beloved character dies, and I wondered what this book might be like, better perhaps, if this abuse remained an undercurrent that the author never fully revealed. The sexism and mind games alone were enough to warrant the characters’ complex emotional landscape. I just think it might’ve been more interesting to leave out the more overt stories of abuse, letting it subtly infuse the scene, without letting it completely taking over, and letting the more nuanced, but no less interesting dramas, have more emphasis throughout.


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