Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fiction | A Thousand Acres of Tragedy

To be honest, there have been several daunting categories in the Read Harder Challenge. I don't do self-help; romance is meh; poetry is torture. The "retelling of a classic" has been one that does NOT excite me, because, you know, if it's a classic, it means I've probably already heard it! One of the "classic" options listed was Shakespeare, and I think that's the worst. Me and Shakespeare have had a long battle of misunderstanding and boredom since high school, and also those stories have been told a thousand times before!

To try and counter-act the negative stigma I'd attached to this category, I decided to pick a story I didn't already know well. I decided on Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, which is essentially a retelling of King Lear. Set in an Iowa farm community in the 1970s, Smiley's 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner tells the story of a retiring farmer who bequeaths his prosperous land to his three daughters. Ginny and Rose, the two elder daughters, live on the land with their husbands and have spent their lives dedicated to the family and farm. However, the youngest, Caroline, lives as a lawyer in Des Moines and expresses little interest in her father's plan. It seems like such a simple response—Caroline's disinterest in a lifestyle she doesn't live—but their father sees it differently. Overwhelmed by this rejection, he cuts Caroline off entirely, and Ginny and Rose are left to suffer in the wake of his anger.

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 things coming into the open.

This story sounds simplistically melodramatic at its core, to the point where I didn't expect much depth or surprise beyond a predictably emotional plot. What Smiley manages to do, though, (and maybe this follows the pattern of King Lear—I don't know; I haven't read it) is create turmoil through the narrator. We hear the story from Ginny's perspective, the eldest daughter who seems the most reliable, the most responsible. As the story progresses, though, Ginny seems to fall apart at the seams. There is no big climactic episode that shifts the story, no turning point after which things will never be the same. Instead, there are many mini-episodes—conversations & situations, jealousies realized & memories unearthed—that slowly change Ginny into someone different than the woman we thought we knew at the beginning.

Though her voice, as narrator, never devolves into the emotional chaos of her character, we begin to distrust Ginny's grasp on reality as she loses stability. The same cannot be said of the plot, which seems to mirror Ginny's spiral into turmoil. The scenarios become heavy—adultery! abuse! murder!—but the narration maintains its even keel. It's almost disorienting, leading us forward with an inkling of disbelief: is this really happening?

"If Daddy got to them and hurt them in any way I would help them learn about evil and retribution. If he doesn't, then they can have the luxury of learning about mercy and benefits of the doubt."

I found this story exciting, as I was constantly calling into question who I liked and trusted. It's an odd and rare reading experience to suddenly turn against your trusted narrator. In addition, Smiley truly writes beautifully, with words that put the simplest of thoughts or feelings into a much bigger picture, calling much more into question. Though lacking the bombastic histrionics of Empire (TV's popular interpretation of King Lear), A Thousand Acres is an amazingly nuanced "retelling of a classic" that is worth reading.

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