Most modern novels fail to surprise me. They telegraph where they are going in such obvious ways that I often feel I could write the next chapters and the ending before I read them. Jane Smiley in A Thousand Acres also telegraphs a lot . . . but underneath those obvious road signs, she's built a more powerful message for those who care to read between the lines. Although most people don't want to read a book as long and as dark as this one, it's well worth your while. The character and plot developments display an amazing set of symmetries that are works of genius.
Those who will love this book the most are people who know farm life in the American Middle West well. Having had a grandfather, father and several uncles who were farmers in Illinois raising lots of corn and hogs, I was first impressed by how well Ms. Smiley captured the attitudes, experiences, psychology and perspectives of the American family farmer during the 1930s through the 1980s. I felt like I was reading the history of my own family for about the first third of the book.
Then, she powerfully shifts the ground as the patriarch of the family, Larry Cook, decides to cede control over the family farm to avoid estate taxes. From there, a superficial reading will see this as a modern version of King Lear. I think that obvious parallel is not an accurate view of the book. Instead, this book takes on the qualities of a Greek tragedy as the characters move inexorably towards their preordained fates. What's the source of the tragedy? It's the pride of the American family farmer who lusts for more land and production.
In fact, this book could have been titled "Life Drains Away" as the forces set into action by the characters create an ironic threat to some of the same characters.
I was most impressed by the subtle case being made for healthier farming methods and changed values among family farmers. Rarely does a novel make such an objective point with such power.
At times, you'll feel that the novel is more than a little over the top. But that's what makes the novel work as a tragic story. I do agree that Ms. Smiley could probably have cut back on some of the darkness, still made her point, and possibly had a masterpiece of a story. But some writers need to shake the heavens with their furies . . . and we can hardly blame them when they succeed.
Well done, Ms. Smiley!