Literature Study GuidesA Thousand AcresBook 1 Chapters 1 4 Summary

A Thousand Acres | Study Guide

Jane Smiley

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A Thousand Acres | Book 1, Chapters 1–4 | Summary

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A Thousand Acres is divided into six books of varying length, each of which is composed of several numbered, untitled chapters. In this study guide, chapters have been grouped for the purpose of summary and analysis.

Summary

Chapter 1

Looking back to when she was eight years old in 1951, Ginny Cook Smith lays out a detailed map of the 640 acres of "ten-foot-thick topsoil" on her father Larry Clark's farm in Zebulon County, Iowa. In Ginny's mind, and in that of her father's, he is the most successful farmer in the county. Larry not only has the most land, he owns it debt free. That puts him above Harold Clark, who owns 500 acres outright, and Cal Ericson, who owns only 370 acres with a mortgage on it. Her father plans to buy Ericson's farm when he loses it so he can have an even thousand acres.

Chapter 2

Twenty-eight years later it is the spring of 1979 and Harold Clark invites everyone to his house for a pig roast to celebrate the return of his son Jess. Jess had been drafted 13 years earlier to fight in the Vietnam War. He left for Canada to escape serving in the war, however, and his family never spoke of him. Ginny looks forward to the gathering. Since her sister Rose Cook Lewis was diagnosed with breast cancer on Valentine's Day, it has been a long, gloomy winter, and Ginny is exhausted from doing all the cooking for three households. Childless, she has also missed her two nieces, whom Rose has sent away to boarding school.

When Ginny sees Jess at the pig roast she admires his body; Rose does, too. Nonetheless, when Ginny's husband Ty Smith shows up she thinks how pleased she still is to see him after 17 years of marriage. As the chapter closes, Ginny hints at some controversy by saying she has thought about that party ever since, "sifting ... for clues" about what happened in the family later.

Chapter 3

Ginny continues the history of her family's farm, recounting how three of her great-grandparents came to Iowa in 1890 from England. They transformed what was then wetlands into a fertile farm with a drainage system they dug and laid themselves. Ginny thinks of this drainage system almost as magic, and her father talks about it reverently to this day. It's why their farm is so prosperous: they can plant earlier than their neighbors and not be limited by rainy weather. She notes although they attend the Lutheran church regularly, it is to pay respects, not give thanks. The Cooks believe their bounty is due not to divine grace but to their own hard work.

Chapter 4

At the pig roast, Ginny comments about how her father Larry bristles when his friend Harold boasts about buying a brand-new air-conditioned tractor with a music system.

Then Ginny notices a gathering on Harold's porch and arrives just as her father is saying, "That's the plan." Larry announces he intends to incorporate the farm and give each of his three daughters a third so they can run it, not him. He's getting too old, he says, and he wants to reduce the inheritance tax when he dies. Although Ginny thinks her dad might be drunk and she has misgivings about the plan, her husband Ty looks happy. Her sister Rose say it's a great idea. Ginny has a sudden impulse to warn her youngest sister Caroline to keep quiet, but it's too late. Caroline, who is a lawyer in Des Moines, says, "I don't know."

Offended, Larry abruptly cuts Caroline out of the plan and storms off. Afterward, Ginny is panicked at the family rupture, and it is Jess who comforts her. By contrast, that night in bed her husband Ty can only talk about his plans for expanding the hog operation on the farm now that they are in control. As she listens Ginny thinks about how she has hidden the last two of her miscarriages from Ty and is continuing to try and get pregnant over his objections. Thus she has learned to live a secret life.

Analysis

The novel begins with a survey, both in geography and history, of the fertile Iowa farmland where the protagonist and narrator, Ginny Cook Smith, has spent her entire life. The land is a vital part both of her sense of self and of her family's sense of identity. "No globe or map fully convinced me that Zebulon County was not the center of the universe," she states.

History is as important as geography to Ginny. Even when she returns to the present, Ginny is constantly jumping back and forth in time in her thoughts: something she will do throughout the entire novel. She spends all of Chapter 3 talking about how her great-grandparents built the farm back in 1890. In Chapter 2 she segues from a passage about Rose refusing to bring her daughters back from boarding school after her cancer diagnosis to a recollection of her own five miscarriages and how corrosively jealous she was of Rose's fertility until she finally managed to repress it.

Suppressing her feelings, remaining silent, is Ginny's defining characteristic. Although she is the first-person narrator, you often have to read between the lines to figure out what Ginny may be thinking or feeling because she does not admit it, even to herself. Author Jane Smiley commented on this in an interview by observing people in her family simply didn't complain. "I suppose this has made me write novels where you can look into someone's inner life without having them express it." Whether it is Smiley's reticence or Ginny's, this means readers need to pay close attention to what Ginny doesn't say as well as what she does in order to spot the emotional undercurrents.

Although it doesn't happen until Chapter 4, Larry Cook's decision to cede ownership of his farm to his daughters is the catastrophe that reverberates through the entire novel. It triggers another long recollection from Ginny about how awed and even frightened she has always been of her father. And yet his "fearsomeness" has always impressed and reassured her, and seemed to her like the "right order of things." This insight not only lays the groundwork for understanding how and why Ginny reacts to events later in the plot, it is also one significant way in which she is different from her counterpart Goneril in William Shakespeare's play, King Lear.

It is perfectly possible to read this novel and appreciate it without knowing King Lear, but knowledge of the play adds new insights. Shakespeare portrays both Goneril and her sister Regan (Rose) as manipulative, ungrateful women who only pretend to love their father in order to get their share of his kingdom. Then they mistreat him. They do not respect or fear him, as Ginny fears and respects her father: and they certainly do not see his rule as the "right order of things," as Ginny does. Readers of Shakespeare's play feel pity for Lear and contempt for his two eldest daughters because they despise and belittle him. But readers of Smiley's novel are more likely to pity Ginny and Rose because of the despicable things Larry has done to them—although the full extent of that abuse will not be revealed until midway through the book.

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