Literature Study GuidesA Thousand AcresBook 5 Chapters 38 41 Summary

A Thousand Acres | Study Guide

Jane Smiley

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A Thousand Acres | Book 5, Chapters 38–41 | Summary



Chapter 38

An inebriated Rose calls Ginny in the middle of the night and asks her to come over. Rose isn't grieving for Pete, but is lamenting the marriage. She says she was promiscuous in high school, and then had two affairs while married to Pete: one with local farmer Bob Stanley. "I thought if there were enough of them it would sort of put him [Larry] in context, or diminish him somehow," she says.

It slowly dawns on Ginny that Rose has been sleeping with Jess, too. Rose admits she knew Ginny had slept with him and she wanted to take Jess away from Ginny. When Rose told Pete about the affair, the man he was angry with was Larry, not Jess. Pete realized it was Larry's incest with Rose that caused her to do things like this. Pete wanted to kill Larry, and actually tried to do so. He was the one who rigged Harold's tractor so the ammonia would spray out. Pete never intended to harm Harold. He thought Larry would be the next person to drive it.

Rose is fuming with anger at her father and at all the men in their community, whom she says are either stupid for respecting Larry, or just as bad as he is because they "accept beating as a way of life." Now that Larry is senile and will never be brought to account for what he did, Rose thinks she deserves to get his farm. "You think a breast weighs a pound?" Rose asks, referring to her mastectomy as if Larry were responsible for her cancer, too. "That's my pound of flesh," meaning the price she paid for the farm.

Chapter 39

Walking away from Rose's house, Ginny feels a bitter, accusatory new awareness of each of the members of her family. Every single one has failed her: Larry, Ty, and most of all, her sister Rose. The weight of this new clarity is unbearable to her. But the farm is full of poisons, which suddenly seems like a solution to Ginny: she will kill Rose. Ginny tries to buy poisons at the feed store and vet's office, but realizes that would look suspicious after Rose's death. She settles on water hemlock, which grows wild on their farm, and carefully prepares a batch of homemade sausage poisoned with it to give to Rose. Doing that helps Ginny to feel "what was unbearable" is now "bearable."

Chapter 40

Ginny waits for Rose to die, but thinks it won't happen until winter because sausage is a cold-weather dish. Meanwhile, the entire Cook family assembles in court in October for a hearing on Caroline and Larry's lawsuit. The harvest has gone well, which makes them look like good farmers. And Larry makes a horrible witness on the stand, answering his own lawyer's questions with paranoid rants about Rose and Ginny killing Caroline and burying her somewhere.

Then Caroline testifies about how she suspects her sisters of influencing her father to give away his land, of mistreating him afterward, and of mismanaging the farm. But Marv Carson contradicts her about the state of the farm, stating Ty has made a wonderful investment and the bank will benefit from it.

In a win for Ginny, Ty, and Rose, the judge immediately throws out the lawsuit and even chastises Caroline for wasting the court's time with a meritless case. But the legal victory has come at a heavy cost, Ginny thinks. It has "marvelously divided us from each other and from our old lives. There could be no reconciliation now."

Chapter 41

"It didn't surprise me that we couldn't tolerate the verdict," Ginny says. The Cooks and the Clarks all go about their lives but her own house seems strange and dirty to her now. That evening while cooking dinner Ginny tells Ty she needs a new stove and everything blows up between them. He refuses, saying she has "shown off plenty this summer." That is when Ginny knows their marriage is over. She asks for a thousand dollars, leaves dinner cooking in the oven, and drives to St. Paul, Minnesota, to start a new life.


Even the victories of a good harvest for the farm and vindication in court are not enough to counter-balance the blows with which life keeps pummeling Ginny. The judge's ruling that Caroline's lawsuit against her sisters had no merit cannot breach the chasm that has developed between them. The financial security of a bountiful harvest sold at a good price cannot mend the rifts in Ginny's marriage to Ty. Larry's irrational behavior, whether dementia or insanity, feigned or real, seems to have obliterated all hope of an apology from him for his abuse. So the discovery Rose and Jess are not only having an affair but are planning a life together is a fatal wound for Ginny. In the same phlegmatic, almost robotic way she has reacted throughout the book, she coolly plots Rose's murder. She uses the cooking skills honed over a lifetime as a farmer's wife to make a batch of poisoned sausage from hogs and hemlock, both found on her own farm.

In the process Smiley plucks a thematic thread that runs throughout the entire book: the role of hazardous chemicals in modern agriculture. Chapter 39 contains a lengthy litany of the many poisons found everywhere on a farm. Even before he was blinded by ammonia, Harold once dipped his hand in a tank of arsenic. Although the chemical dealers tell farmers these insecticides, fuels, lubricants, fertilizers, and pesticides are "safe as mother's milk," readers remember both Rose and Harold's wife developed breast cancer. Jess Clark thinks Ginny's five miscarriages are the result of tainted well water. And when Ginny decides to kill her sister, she doesn't have to look far to find the poison.

There is a different kind of toxicity alive on the farms as well, at least according to Rose. In Chapter 38 she rails against the way women are treated. Rose indicts not just their own father Larry for beating and abusing them sexually, but all farmers. She views them as either evil or stupid for treating women like property their husbands and fathers can do whatever they like with. Again, this is a theme that runs through the entire novel. It is not just Larry who expects the women in his family to cook and clean for him. Ty expects it, and until the moment she walks out leaving dinner half-cooked in the oven, Ginny believes this is her role as well. It is only after having lost so much she is finally able to stand up for herself.

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